Let's Talk About Snow-Park Permits


A full discussion of the Snow-Park permit fees, from Rune Harkestad, Kongsberger Ski Club president:

What happened to all the revenue from last ski season?

Annual revenue for the Snow Park Program (sales of season, daily and special groomed permits) would typically be approximately $1.1m.  Well, we all remember the unprecedented crowds at the Snow Parks last season and, to no one's surprise, revenue approximately doubled, to $2,257,075.  With limited grooming at the John Wayne trail due to staffing shortages and huge crowds at Cabin Creek, we were very hopeful that the Program would approve additional funding for Cabin Creek/Erling Stordahl to maintain a consistent six days a week grooming schedule throughout the season.  More than 300 people sent emails to voice their support for the application, and a copy of every single email was submitted with the application.  

Cabin Creek/Erling Stordahl is groomed by a private contractor who gets paid by the hour groomed.  The private groomer then has to cover all of his expenses through this hourly rate. That is not the case with the other Snow Parks that require a special grooming sticker (Lake Easton, Hyak, Crystal Springs, Mt. Spokane, and Lake Wenatchee).  Instead, equipment replacement and repair and maintenance are paid from different line items in the budget.  

I have argued over and over, and will continue to do so, that the Program in effect spends much more money on grooming at, for example, Lake Easton than it does at Cabin Creek when factoring in R&M and equipment replacement.  Simple math: last year’s budget was $107,622 and an additional $28,778 would get us the additional 185 hours of grooming that we were short of last season.  In comparison, the grooming budget at Hyak/Lake Easton was $68,738 last season, and that does not account for any R&M or equipment replacement.  Due to staffing shortages (resulting in four days of grooming per week instead of six) and a late start to the grooming season (December 29), grooming at the John Wayne trail was basically about 50% of scheduled grooming.  My argument was simple, Lake Easton/Hyak received more funding than Cabin Creek (when taking R&M and equipment replacement into account) for half the grooming produced.  Let’s bring Cabin Creek closer to the same funding level as State Parks groomed by the State.  I also want to point out that when it was clear that Lake Easton wasn’t able to groom as scheduled and we were running out of money at Cabin Creek, I suggested to State Parks that they shift funds from Lake Easton over to Cabin Creek.  That was resoundingly rejected.

Given the budget windfall, there were more applications for funds than normal, and of the 24 applications submitted, 22 were approved; the other two, for additional grooming for Cabin Creek and $50k for a side-by-side groomer at Lake Easton, were rejected.  Obviously, this was a huge disappointment.  Here are some examples of the applications that were approved:  $300k for a new groomer at Lake Wenatchee, $148k for a hauling truck at Lake Easton (it is worth mentioning that the snow cat will now be parked at Hyak, which means the need for hauling the machine on a truck is far more limited), various snowmobiles and other equipment, plowing truck equipment, North West Avalanche Control salary, and increased grooming at Loup Loup Pass and Mt. Spokane.  The remaining funds were put aside for future capital expenditures at State Parks.

On the bright side, we did put in an application for a gate at the bottom of the Amabilis trail. This was approved ($4,142) and the gate is scheduled to be installed in mid-November.  We have worked diligently with the Forest Service for several years to obtain approval and just received a road maintenance approval and approval to install the gate a month ago.  The gate will allow us to close the Amabilis trail to vehicles from December 1, regardless of the snow level below.  In past years, the Forest Service wouldn’t let us close the road at each end until there was sufficient snow to groom (in their discretion), and without a berm at each end of the road, there was no meaningful way to close Amabilis to vehicles (the USFS sign didn’t do much).  Now we will at least have undisturbed grooming up Amabilis starting December 1, regardless of snow level below.   The other accomplishment is that we have reached an agreement with the Forest Service that 6” of snow by the cabin is sufficient for the Cabin Creek groomer to groom trails and for the Forest Service to allow him to build berms at each end of the road.

So who makes these funding decisions?  The State Parks administration puts together a budget that is presented to the WRAC (Winter Recreation Advisory Committee).  The funding meeting takes place in July and I have attended for most of the past 20 years.  For the most part, the WRAC rubberstamps the budget presented and the only discussion really is about the requests for additional or one-time funding.  The WRAC typically scores the new requests for funding based on priority and, in most years, about half the requests get funded. I have made numerous applications for Cabin Creek over the years, both for ongoing grooming funds and one-time projects.  Most applications have been turned down, but some have been approved, resulting in a higher grooming budget than where it was 15 years ago ($52k).

22 out of 24 requests makes this year highly unusual.  I can understand why they rejected a $50k side-by-side groomer at Lake Easton -- it was intended to be used during the one to three weeks of the early season before they can use the bigger cat to groom -- but rejecting additional funding at Cabin Creek is puzzling to say the least.  So who sits at the WRAC?  More information can be found at State Parks web pages (including area representative’s emails) but in short, a total of 12 people.  Washington State is divided into six regions, one representative from each region (interestingly, region 1, which includes King, Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom Counties, counts for at least half the population in the State but has only one representative).  Since Cabin Creek is located in Kittitas County, its representative is from region 5 and is a person who avoids Snoqualmie Pass Snow Parks due to the crowds.  Then there are three representatives from the snowmobile community (and vice versa, three non-motorized members on the Snowmobile Committee).  This cross representation probably made some sense when the Snow Park program was created, but I find it difficult to see how this continues to be useful (Joe McNulty is a historian on this).  Then the last three members are from Fish and Wildlife, DNR, and the Association of Counties. In short, decisions on how to spend your permit dollars for skiing along the I-90 corridor are almost entirely made by people who either don’t do non-motorized activities or are from areas outside of where you ski.

Lastly, you will find that the cost of the permits for 2021/22 have increased.  Specifically, the base fee for Snow Parks is increased from $40 to $50 (25% increase) and the special grooming sticker permit from $40 to $70 (75% increase).  Now, it has been approximately ten years since the last price increase, so an increase in pricing shouldn’t be a huge surprise.  The question is what the Program intends to do with the additional revenue.  Since most of the increase occurs on the back of the five areas requiring a special grooming sticker, I suggested a year ago, when the price increase was approved, the establishment of a committee that would come up with a plan for how to spend the increase in revenue, and to ensure that since the majority of the price increase comes from the special grooming sticker, it goes back to these  areas.  There was no response from State Parks to this request.  So what happened in the budget for this upcoming season is that an 8% across the board increase was approved.  Basically, this means that, of the 25% increase in the base permit, about a third of the increase is applied right back into the Program across the board. What is more interesting is what happened to the increase in the special grooming sticker permit (75%).  A 12% increase was approved for Snow Parks requiring a special grooming sticker, which means that, of the 75% increase, only 16% goes back towards grooming at these parks, regardless of need or not.  So the end of the story is that, as a result of the upcoming permit price increase, the grooming budget at Cabin Creek/Erling Stordahl increased from $107,622 to $120,537, which helps, but we received none of the windfall from the doubling of revenue last year.  That money went elsewhere in the State, mostly to equipment at State Parks-operated Snow Parks.  

Please direct comments to State Parks and the WRAC members. 



  1. Do we want to initiate a letter/email writing campaign? If so, to whom should we write? Are email/US mail addresses available?

  2. Thanks for the detailed explanation, Rune... your advocacy is appreciated and it's evident that more of us need to get involved!

  3. Why State grooming is more expensive than contractor grooming --
    by Joe McNulty

    Rune said, “I have argued over and over, and will continue to do so, that the Program in effect spends much more money on grooming at, for example, Lake Easton than it does at Cabin Creek when factoring in R&M and equipment replacement.”

    It’s a fact that State grooming is more expensive than grooming done by contractors. This isn’t a good or bad thing. It just is. Here’s some of why this happens.

    Contractors bid competitively on a package based on trail mileage and grooming frequency. Specs include “soft factors” like equipment and experience. They propose and hourly rate for this package. Contractors are supposed to wrap repair, maintenance and capital replacement into their hourly rate. (A good year for a contractor is one where they run out of billable hours.)

    Contractors can use depreciation to shelter cash flow, ostensibly for equipment replacement. Contractors can lease, lease-purchase or borrow money to buy equipment.

    By law, State Parks Winter Recreation Programs are not allowed to borrow money or lease equipment. Parks must pay forward to buy equipment. Hence, they have a budget line called “Equipment Replacement.”

    State Parks buys new equipment, ostensibly because it’s more effective and requires less maintenance. Less maintenance means less maintenance expense. This is important because the State’s fully loaded labor cost is higher than that of a contractor, both for grooming and for maintenance.

    Contractors buy used equipment. They pay a fair wage to groomers. I believe they contribute sweat equity to keep their equipment in good share. Contractors’ have a lower expense profile than the state, lower equipment acquisition costs, lower R&M costs.

    According to ZipRecruiter, in Washington state, the average hourly wage for non-union equipment operators is $25.81.
    In October 2021, Mt. Spokane closed a groomer position having an hourly wage between $24.30 and 27.54. This position is full time and comes with family medical, paid holidays, a vacation accrual, and retirement benefits. It’s a good package.


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