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A fisherman paddles his boat at the North Shore Marina March 5, 2022 at Lake Pueblo State Park. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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 rollout of the Keep Colorado Wild Pass is not going as smoothly as planned. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is hoping state lawmakers will give the agency a $2.2 million cash infusion to cover unanticipated costs in the agency’s campaign to sway vehicle owners to not opt out of the additional $29 fee with their annual registration. 

The Joint Budget Committee, the legislative panel that drafts the state budget, initially denied the request and asked the agency to step forward to discuss the request for $2.2 million, which is roughly three times what CPW initially projected it would need to launch the pass in 2021 and 2022. The agency told lawmakers last year it would absorb those rollout costs in its existing appropriations, but now it needs help. 

As the agency attempted to reach every driver in Colorado and connected with county clerks who are collecting the fee, the agency has spent more than anticipated. The Keep Colorado Pass launched as part of every vehicle registration on Jan. 3 as an automatic payment unless owners specifically opt out and exclude the $29 from their registration payment. 

Lawmakers adopted legislation in 2021 that allowed CPW to include the discounted parks pass with all vehicle registrations as a way to increase funding for state parks, search and rescue and avalanche forecasting.  

CPW last fall sent postcards to every home in the state, sharing information about the $29 parks pass. The agency now says it needs better customer service to handle refunds without burdening county clerks. It had hoped to access the email addresses of Colorado vehicle owners through the Department of Revenue, but that inexpensive option was nixed due to data privacy concerns.

The agency has been able to cover the cost of the rollout so far. But if the campaign continues as planned, the additional challenges could force operational cuts, Justin Rutter, CPW’s financial officer, told the JBC on Wednesday. 

A challenge has been making sure vehicle owners know they can opt out of the additional charge by carving the $29 fee out of their annual vehicle registration tax.

“We need to get that message out and … we got outside of our echo chamber and really felt we had to do right by the intent of the legislation,” Rutter told the committee. 

CPW is betting big on the Keep Colorado Wild Pass. Park entrance passes and daily tickets account for about one-third of the agency’s annual parks revenue. 

The Keep Colorado Wild Pass, which replaces an $80 annual pass, is projected to provide more than half of state parks revenue. The goal is that more purchasers of $29 passes will generate additional revenue for the agency to increase investment at Colorado state parks and support growing traffic at parks. The pass is a cornerstone of the agency’s push to diversify revenue beyond hunting licenses. 

In the first week of January, 28% of drivers chose to pay for the pass. In the second week, that percentage climbed to 33%. The agency hopes at least somewhere between 20% and 30% of vehicle owners do not opt out and pay the extra $29 for the park pass included in their annual registration payments. 

CPW needs Keep Colorado Wild to generate $32.5 million for state parks, $2.5 million for Colorado search and rescue teams and $1 million for Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The agency collected $24.4 million in $80 annual parks passes and daily entrance fees in its fiscal 2020-2021, down from $26.7 million in the previous year.

“It’s early but … we are on track,” CPW acting director Heather Dugan told the wildlife commission last week in a brief report that did not include details about the supplemental funding request. 

The initial rollout is critical for CPW. Once a vehicle owner opts out of the extra $29 parks pass, the fee will no longer be included in future registrations for that vehicle.

“If we kick it off the ground well this first year it will have much higher return. It will anchor the participation rate we have going forward so it is really important to get this right,” said Lauren Larson, the director of the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting, as she introduced the supplement funding request to the Joint Budget Committee on Wednesday. “What other states have seen is that your first-year take-up rate really anchors the program.”

The Joint Budget Committee unanimously approved CPW’s request for additional cash, but not without some scolding. 

“I don’t appreciate departments just thinking they can blow past the spending approval authority. That just should not be happening and I don’t appreciate it at all,” said state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican who said the agency should have notified lawmakers of the additional spending last year. 

State Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, asked CPW for details about the agency’s 18 current communications employees. 

“If this is the sort of five-alarm emergency that has been communicated to us … that taking one-eighteenth of each person’s time and finding a way to get that done would be something that would be a priority,” said Bridges, who described 18 communications workers as “an insanely high number.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy.