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First year of optional Keep Colorado Wild Pass sees drivers deliver $41.1 million in revenue for parks and wildlife

Nearly 1.5 million Colorado drivers paid an extra $29 to include the parks pass on their vehicle registrations, outpacing expectations and helping fund Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Mountain bikers climb up Moonstone trail in Breckenridge in 2022. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Drivers are delivering for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

In the first year of sales for the Keep Colorado Wild Pass, 1.49 million Colorado drivers have paid $29 to include the parks pass on their vehicle’s registration. The first year of the program delivered $41.1 million to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which is more than the agency’s conservative projections for the first-time pass.

“The Keep Colorado Wild pass is a resounding success, for sure,” Justin Rutter, the financial officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, told the agency’s commissioners Wednesday.

The agency’s fiscal 2022-23 budget planned for $311 million in spending, with $112 million of that going to parks. The agency projected $365 million in revenue for the year, with 55% coming from selling hunting and fishing licenses and parks passes. The agency hoped to get at least $36 million from Keep Colorado Wild Passes by the end of June 2024 and if the calendar trend carries into the agency’s fiscal year “we will meet and exceed that goal,” Rutter said.

While the Keep Colorado Wild Pass program operates on the July-to-June fiscal year, the first 12 months of sales means it’s very likely that Colorado’s search and rescue teams will get $2.5 million in additional funding and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center will get $1 million.

“To see Colorado residents supporting the backcountry in a different way is really cool,” said Jeff Sparhawk, the executive director of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, which represents more than 50 search and rescue teams and 2,800 volunteer rescuers in Colorado.

The Keep Colorado Wild Pass launched Jan. 3, 2023, as an add-on to every vehicle registration unless drivers specifically opted out of the $29 charge. The 2021 legislation that created the pass hoped to generate more revenue for parks than the $23 million that came from sales of an $80 annual pass in 2020. The plan was that the first $32.5 million in sales would go to parks, then deliver funding for search and rescue operations and avalanche forecasting. At $36 million, the tap switches back to parks and wildlife funding for trails, wildlife programs and inclusion projects.

The agency projected revenue from sales of the pass ranged from $21.5 million to $54 million. But it was always uncertain just how many Coloradans would be OK with an extra charge on their vehicle’s registration. The 1.49 million Keep Colorado Wild passes sold in the past 12 months represents about 28% of the 4.9 million light trucks and passenger vehicles registered in Colorado.

Earlier in the year, the percentage of drivers opting to pay the extra $29 for the parks pass was above 30% but declined to a little more than 28% in the last half of the year, said Rutter, who hopes to explore the declining trend to identify strategies for better connecting with drivers.

A similar parks pass program in Montana had about 86% of drivers in 2020 paying for the $9 pass as part of their vehicle registration. Michigan asks drivers to opt in to pay an additional $12 for a parks pass and statewide participation was at 33% in 2020. About 37% of Washington State drivers chose to pay an additional $30 for an annual parks pass as part of their vehicle registration in 2021.

Now that you have a pass, are you using it?

Now, the question is, will Colorado’s 42 state parks see an increase in visitation from all these new passholders? Not so far, Rutter said.

Visitation to state parks was 17.9 million in the fiscal 2023 year, which ended in June 2023. That’s down from the pandemic peak of 19.5 million in 2020, but 22% above the three-year average of 14.6 million before the pandemic. The cost to operate and maintain state parks has soared, from a three-year average of $5.8 million before the pandemic to $15.1 million in 2023. The increase is connected to the opening of the new Fishers Peak State Park near Trinidad, planning for a new park at Sweetwater Lake in Garfield County, the new Colorado Clays State Recreational Area near Barr Lake and several other projects that added space and facilities to parks.

Visitation for the 2023 calendar year – the first year Keep Colorado Wild passes were sold – was identical to the 2022 calendar year. So, early projections that park visitation could climb by 30% with the new pass did not happen, said Rutter, who plans more evaluation of visitation trends in the coming year.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center will use the extra revenue to hire permanent staff in several mountain towns and to improve tools for forecasting and communicating avalanche information to the public.

The avalanche center received extra state funding two years ago to kick-start improvements until the Keep Colorado Wild Pass revenues rolled in. Senate Bill 168 in 2022 transferred management of the backcountry search and rescue fund from the Department of Local Affairs to Colorado Parks and Wildlife and directed $1 million from the state’s general fund to the agency to support backcountry search and rescue until the Keep Colorado Wild Pass funding kicked in. The same legislation also immunized volunteer rescuers from civil lawsuits and provided disability benefits to volunteers injured during a rescue.

Colorado’s sheriffs oversee volunteer search and rescue teams and the most recent numbers show those 50-plus teams responding to more than 3,600 calls a year. Volunteers donate anywhere from 200 to 400 hours of their time every year for missions and training. The number of calls for help increased during the pandemic and have not eased, stressing teams.

“Search and rescue has been kind of run on a shoestring forever and we are trying to relieve the volunteers from having to do fundraising while responding to calls,” Sparhawk said.

The Keep Colorado Wild Pass money will go directly to teams and local sheriffs will figure out how to spend it. The bump in funding sets the stage for a larger, eventual push to establish a permanent funding system for the country’s busiest search and rescue state, with workers’ compensation programs, funds for teams to upgrade gear and maybe a stronger mental health program to support volunteers.

“Is this ($2.5 million) enough? Probably not,” Sparhawk said. “But hopefully it’s the start of the foundation we need to better support our responders.”

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