Difficult merge for outdoor agencies

BUDGET: Fish and Wildlife, Parks hurting for revenue

January 10, 2011 

SEATTLE – Washington's outdoor agencies already are struggling to maintain services because of steep budget cuts in the past two years, and officials say the harsh spending reductions facing the Legislature might make it close to impossible.

They’re scrambling for any new revenue, from donations to higher license fees to charging for access to state land. To be determined is how the public will take that, and how the state might pull off a shotgun marriage of the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“It’s going to be a lot of tough, tough decisions for legislators and everyone else involved,” said Fred Olson, chairman of the Fish and Wildlife Commission. “These are troubling times.”

The legislative session that starts today faces a projected $4.6 billion deficit. In her proposed budget for the 2011-2013 spending period, Gov. Chris Gregoire says every state agency must share the pain.

She’s called for cutting the number of agencies from 21 to nine. Among the largest consolidations would be Fish and Wildlife, Parks and Recreation, the Recreation and Conservation Office and the law enforcement unit of the Department of Natural Resources into a new Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Gregoire’s proposals only came out last month – not much time for hunters, hikers and others who enjoy the outdoors to figure out what they mean. Even department heads aren’t sure.

“I’m trying to get up to speed, having meeting after meeting,” said state parks Director Don Hoch, who started that job just a month ago.

Hoch and others point out that Gregoire’s proposals are just that and what finally emerges from the Legislature is hard to predict.

John Mankowski, Gregoire’s natural resources policy adviser, said the governor’s office is still drafting the consolidation proposal it will take to the Legislature. “Our bill is going to be huge,” he said, but “the idea is to have it policy-neutral” – not changing basic duties of the agencies, but trying to eliminate duplication, mostly in management and administrative functions.

Both agencies focus on the outdoors, but have different constituencies – hikers and campers for one, hunters and sport and commercial fishers for the other. How they would mix is among the unknowns.

“Clearly there are very, very different functions,” Olson said, but both share a strong interest in protecting habitat and managing resources. “In that area there’s very definitely common ground.”

The agencies are headed by independent commissions. Some worry about Gregoire’s proposal to have the governor appoint the new department’s director, with the commissions becoming advisory.

The Parks and Recreation Commission said last month it wants to remain autonomous. Olson said a major concern behind that vote is the huge amount of work to raise money and reorganize at the same time. Fish and Wildlife’s commission hasn’t taken a position yet, said agency Deputy Director Joe Stohr.

The Recreation and Conservation Office manages grant money for habitat restoration and other projects. Director Kaleen Cottingham says she doesn’t object to consolidating as long as her agency can maintain its watchdog function and not be influenced on how it makes grants.

It’s universally accepted that it’s going to cost more to hunt, fish or get out in the woods. Being considered are increases in fishing and hunting licenses and new access fees. Also going up would be permits for commercial fishing and for construction and other work on or near waterways.

Agency leaders say they either have to find more money or shut down programs or facilities – many of which already have been cut to the bone.

In Gregoire’s proposal, Parks and Recreation’s total budget, which includes money from all sources including the general fund, would drop more than 52 percent from the 2009-2011 spending level to about $73 million. Fish and Wildlife’s proposed total budget would go down by 47 percent to about $174 million.

Parks and Recreation currently asks for a $5 donation when people renew vehicle tabs. But that’s brought in just $16.5 million since it began in September 2009, far less than the $28 million projected, said Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Virginia Painter.

The agency is considering a per-car access fee for its properties. That’s a common charge in most states, Hoch said, and Washington would try to keep the price reasonable – maybe $20-$30 a year – “Something folks will be able to handle.”

Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources are proposing a separate Explore Washington pass. It would add $5 to an annual hunting or fishing license fee, but for others it would be $10 per person for each visit to the agencies’ lands or $40 a head per year.

Stohr says having everyone pay is fair. But the price isn’t sitting well with many.

“We just think that is very excessive and is going to deter people from using those lands,” said Jonathan Guzzo, advocacy director for the Washington Trails Association. While the hikers’ organization isn’t opposed to a user fee, he notes a daily National Forest pass is just $5 per car, making it likely people would just drive past state lands to spend time in federal forests.

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