EDITORIAL: Conservation without politics
For 25 years the Washington Wildlife and Recreation grant program has been a model, envied across the nation for its impact, its popularity, effectiveness and for the local enthusiasm it generates for conservation and parks.
Much of this success stems from its objectivity and fairness. Proposed projects are evaluated and ranked by set criteria, independently administered and followed without deviation. Projects are scored on their impact, scope, feasibility, local matching support, urgency and timeliness and many other factors. By law, projects are funded according to rank. High-scoring projects are likely to be funded, low scorers are not. All projects are judged in the same way. Nothing depends on political connections.
Now imagine how the program might be affected if this objective ranking was tossed, and replaced by earmarks doled out to the politically well-connected. It would matter less which projects would do the most good for the most people. Projects for the powerful with the greatest political payback would rise. Fair and objective, no more. The state Senate appears to be taking a step in that direction.
Wildlife and Recreation projects are funded in the capital budget. Traditionally, an appropriation is set and applied to the project list. Projects above the cutoff are funded, those below are not. This year the House version of the capital budget follows the pattern, spending $75 million. The Senate version, at $68.8 million pending a floor vote, takes a different tack. The project rankings are in part jettisoned. Entire project categories are unfunded. In several cases low-ranking projects are funded when higher ranking projects are not. Projects in certain categories are moved to other parts of the budget, outside the ranking parameters. Two high-ranking farmland preservation projects from the Okanogan Land Trust go unfunded by the Senate, for instance, while two projects near the bottom are funded. By the way, the Saddle Rock Gateway and Hale Park projects in Wenatchee are funded. Sage Hills Gateway land acquisiton is funded by the House, not by the Senate.
A Senate spokesman told The Associated Press that funding was reprioritized to cover a backlog of construction projects. For whatever reason, the precedent will be destructive.
“We are grateful that both the House and Senate recognize the importance of WWRP grants in driving our economy and supporting Washington’s quality of life,” said Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition Executive Director Joanna Grist in a release. “Unfortunately, (the Senate) proposal goes against 25 years of bipartisan support for the program’s objective, expert-driven evaluation process. It destroys the faith of local communities in the grant process and unfairly supports earmarks at the expense of much-needed projects.”