Keep politics out of parks and habitat

Once again the state Senate is playing politics with a tried and true method of prioritizing projects worthy of funding for new parks, open space, trails, boat launches, and fish and wildlife habitat all across the state.

The program under assault is called the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, a state capital budget-funded measure that was launched in 1989 by a board coalition that includes business, labor, environmental groups, hunters, anglers, boaters and other citizens, all keenly aware that population growth and development put tremendous pressure on the state’s recreational and natural resource lands, and that sustained effort and funding are needed to preserve open space.

The WWRP founders made it clear that this was a quality of life, not political, response to keep the Evergreen State as green as possible. They even had the foresight to recruit and name past governors Dan Evans, a Republican, and Mike Lowry, a Democrat, as co-chairs of the coalition.

Funding levels for the program are the subjects of debate and compromise every biennium during the crafting of the state capital budget. The wildlife and recreation coalition typically asks for more money than it receives, which comes as no political surprise given the competition for finite financial resources.

A case in point: Going into the 2015 legislative session, the coalition asked for $97 million. Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget included $70 million. The House offered up $75 million and the Senate suggested $68.8 million. But the devil is in the details.

The Senate proposal re-ranks projects contrary to existing state law that in 1989 established an independent, transparent process of deciding which projects should receive money, and in what order. The project criteria include community support, development threat to the property, habitat values, diversity of uses, public demand and other factors. The criteria apply to trails, farmland preservation, natural areas, water access, riparian protection, state parks, local parks, urban wildlife habitat, state lands renovation and development, state lands restoration and enhancement, and park development.

Any meddling in this objective review process is not welcome.

In 2011, the Senate tried to divert $16 million from the WWRP and spend it on poorly ranked but politically popular projects. The Senate also wanted to eliminate WWRP funding for farmland preservation projects. This year, the Senate revised the project priority list again, favoring parks projects over purchase of property that protects fish and wildlife habitat. The Senate majority said it wanted to suspend land acquisitions for two years to tackle a backlog of parks construction.

This approach to boosting parks construction undermines a process that has protected WWRP from political wheeling and dealing since its inception.

Some politicians may think that building parks is what the voters want. But many voters are just as supportive of open space and fish and wildlife habitat, which supports an outdoor recreation economy valued at about $21.6 billion a year, according to an Earth Economics study prepared this year for the state Recreation and Conservation Office.

The study suggests the outdoor recreation economy generates some 200,000 jobs a year, many of those in rural areas that are hard-pressed for economic growth.

Let’s preserve the integrity of the WWRP’s fair, objective and nonpolitical project ranking system . It’s served the state well for more than 25 years.