The state Legislature had the foresight 25 years ago to launch a capital funding program to pay for new parks, open space, trails, boat launches and fish and wildlife habitat all across the state. It’s called the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program.
It was then, and remains today, the state’s primary vehicle for protecting the state’s unique natural places and developing community recreational opportunities for future generations. Nine years ago, lawmakers added farmland preservation to the list of eligible projects.
If the state Legislature approves this year’s request to fund 100 statewide projects costing $97 million, which it should, the 153-year-old Nelson Family Ranch straddling the Deschutes River about 10 miles south of Olympia will be preserved.
Ron Nelson’s great-grandfather came here from the California gold fields in 1861 to start raising cattle, sheep and other livestock on 550 acres of prime agricultural land. For five generations, the Nelson family has provided the South Sound with locally grown, all-natural grass-fed quality meat.
Now the family wants to preserve the land in an agreement with the Capitol Land Trust. Without WWRP funding, this historic riverfront property will probably be sold off for housing.
The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program has been a tremendous success. It supports the state’s $22.5 billion outdoor recreation industry that provides 226,000 jobs and returns $1.6 billion in state and local tax revenues.
No wonder the WWRP has such broad bipartisan support from both sides of the Cascades, and from realtors and environmentalists, hikers and hunters.
But legislators haven’t always fully funded the program. In the 2007-2009 biennial budget, WWRP received $100 million, but in the 2011-2013 budget that number declined to only $20 million.
When WWRP began in 1989, it received slightly more than 3 percent of the state capital budget. That fell to only 1.13 percent in 2011-2013. The 2015-2017 request would be 2.7 percent of an expected $2 billion capital budget.
Since former governors Dan Evans, a Republican, and Mike Lowry, a Democrat, created a 130-member coalition of business and labor leaders, sportsmen, environmentalists to advocate for land acquisition, the state has invested more than $1 billion for over 1,000 projects.
Nearly $40 million has been spent in Thurston County on projects like Woodard Bay, Ward Lake, the Chehalis Western Trail, the Heritage Fountain, the Lacey Regional Athletic Center and others.
It’s particularly important this year for Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Legislature to fully fund the WWRP’s $97 million biennial request.
The state is experiencing a population growth spurt, and we know now that climate change will mean even more people moving here to escape droughts and water shortages. Although construction and land acquisition costs are rising, they are still low, which means exceptional value for money spent in the next biennium.
The land we conserve today ensures that our children and grand-children will have access to open space, trails, recreational lands, clean water and locally-grown agricultural products like those from the Nelson Ranch.