One of the few bright spots of the 2009 legislative session was lawmakers' decision to set aside $70 million in the state construction budget for wildlife habitat, farmland preservation and recreation opportunities.
This year funding for the so-called Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program is very much up in the air. We detest the Senate’s attempt to politicize the project selection process and much prefer the House’s plan to stick to the long-standing, independent analysis that keeps political deal-making out of the equation.
Even in difficult financial times, lawmakers have repeatedly recognized the need to preserve habitat and special parcels of property for future generations. Since 1990, the state has directed $618 million to more than 1,000 projects across the state.
It’s not like lawmakers are choosing between these worthwhile conservation projects and smaller class sizes for kids or health care for the poor. Funds for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program come out of the state’s construction budget, which is financed through the sale of bonds. These are not general fund dollars.
Those lobbying for the wildlife and recreation grants have solid arguments. First, many of the projects create jobs. Secondly, some projects involve property acquisitions and conservation easements that put dollars in the pockets of local landowners, helping to stimulate the local economy. But most importantly, these projects secure natural resources for the enjoyment of present and future generations. The trails, swimming areas, parks and natural areas that are paid for through the competitive grant program provide financially strapped members of the public free recreation opportunities across Washington state.
The wildlife and recreation coalition was created in 1989 when former governors Dan Evans, a Republican, and Mike Lowry, a Democrat, assembled an incredibly broad, 130-member coalition of business and labor leaders, environmentalists, sportsmen and soccer moms. Today that coalition has grown to more than 250 members.
The coalition works because people of all political stripes understand the need to create special places while that’s still possible.
The coalition has been well received by lawmakers, too. In 1990 the Legislature made its first appropriation – $53 million to be spent over two years. Since then, two-year appropriations have ranged from $40 million to $100 million. Supporters were shooting for $100 million in 2009, but given the spiraling economy, were pleased with the $70 million appropriation.
The state Recreation and Conservation Office is responsible for reviewing, ranking and distributing the grants through a competitive process.
Investments in Thurston County alone have totaled more than $30 million and include such popular attractions as Rainier Vista Park in Lacey, the Woodard Bay Natural Resources Conservation Area, the regional athletic park off Marvin Road, Olympia Woodland Trail, Millersylvania State Park, Grass Lake Nature Park, Deschutes Falls Park, Chehalis Western Trail, Ward’s Lake, Tenino City Park and the Bald Hills Natural Resources Conservation Area.
That brings us to this year.
House budget writers included $50 million for the wildlife and recreation program and used the project ranking system that has long been in place – a ranking system designed to keep out political deal-making.
In the Senate, the ranked projects would receive $20 million. But senators set aside another $16 million directed to politically popular projects. No farm preservation projects were funded in the Senate plan.
Coalition spokeswoman Cynara Lilly is absolutely right when she says projects should be funded on their merit, not how much political push is behind them.
“By changing the criteria to fit a political need, the Senate proposal destroys the faith of project applicants in the grant process,” said Joanna Grist, executive director of the coalition.
The competitive ranking system has worked and worked well. It’s why organizations representing conservation, business, recreation, hunting, fishing, farming and community interests, have joined the coalition and continue their worthwhile quest for funding from the state Legislature.
House and Senate negotiators should include the wildlife and recreation program in the final construction budget and senators should abandon their attempt to politicize the selection process and let nominated projects rise or fall on their merit.