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Lake Pueblo State Park, shown here in a March 5, 2022 photo, features 60 miles of shoreline and 10,000 acres of land. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s Parks and Wildlife Commission on Wednesday approved a $29 price for the new Keep Colorado Wild Pass. The pass, which will be part of every vehicle registration in the state unless drivers choose to opt out, could generate more than $54 million a year for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 43 state parks. 

“A historic day,” commission chairwoman Carrie Hauser said after the unanimous vote approving the $29 price tag. 

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

The Keep Colorado Wild Pass was created in 2021 with legislation intended to increase revenue for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Starting in 2023, license plate renewals will include an annual state parks pass, with an option to not pay the $29 fee if drivers choose. The agency, which does not use taxpayer dollars, says the extra revenue will help manage record visitation, which hit 17 million individual visits in 2020, up from 14.7 million in 2019 and 12.3 million in 2011.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission spent the last year debating and studying a price for the pass, with the legislation limiting the price to not more than half the fee of today’s $80 to $120 annual state parks vehicle pass. 

By focusing on quantity — there were 6.5 million vehicles registered in Colorado in 2021 — the Colorado Wild Pass legislation is expected to generate more revenue each year than the $22.9 million that came from annual pass sales in 2020. When revenue hits $32.5 million, money will be directed to volunteer search and rescue organizations and backcountry avalanche safety programs. At $36 million, the tap switches to direct money to build new state parks, better manage recreation outside of state parks, support trails, wildlife and diversity work. 

An online survey of 2,217 residents commissioned by CPW showed “high levels of interest” for the Wild Pass. The survey showed that annual revenue would grow with the pass priced between $14 and $29, but revenue would stagnate if priced between $29 and $32 and decrease if the pass cost more than $32. 

The agency’s “conservative” estimated sales of the Wild Pass ranged from $15.7 million at $14, to $21.5 million with a pass priced between $29 and $32. The “optimistic” projection ranged from $32.5 million to $54 million. 

The pricing survey included Montana’s 2003 $4 vehicle registration fee that replaced state park day use fees. That fee increased to $6 in 2010 and to $9 in 2019. In 2020, only 14% of Montana motorists opted out of the fee.  

Michigan launched a $12 pass with vehicle registrations in 2010, but asked vehicle owners to opt in. Statewide participation started around 24% and grew to 33% in 2020. 

Washington State’s $30 annual Discovery Pass launched in 2011 and about 37% of the state’s vehicle owners purchased that pass when registering vehicles in 2021. 

Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs said his goal was to make sure everyone in Colorado chose to pay the fee and not opt out of the program. 

“This is Colorado. This is equity in the outdoors. This is our avalanche needs. This is our search and rescue needs. This is dealing with growth issues not just at our parks, but all of  our lands,” said Gibbs before the commission’s vote. “We are seeing 70,000 people moving to our state a year. We are all in this together and I feel like the Keep Colorado Wild Pass … I think we are on the right track at $29.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...