Dozens of Kitsap parks benefited from canceled federal program
A much-celebrated federal program that supported thousands of parks around the country, including at least two dozen parks in Kitsap County, shut down this week after Congress failed to renew it.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund had for 51 years used a portion of offshore oil and gas drilling royalties to buy and improve lands for public use. Its continuation required congressional renewal by Sept. 30.
The LWCF had invested nearly $600 million in hundreds of parks and conservation projects in Washington state. LWCF dollars paid for expansions of Olympic and Mount Rainier national parks and improvements to numerous Washington State Parks, including Manchester State Park, Blake Island State Park and Scenic Beach State Park in Kitsap.
More than $5 million has gone to Kitsap projects since the early 1970s. Long Lake and Kitsap Lake county parks, Gordon Field at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds, Poulsbo’s Liberty Bay and Nelson parks and Bainbridge Island’s Strawberry Hill Park are a few that benefited from LWCF funding.
The Bainbridge park district recently used a $500,000 LWCF grant to add a waterfront section to Gazzam Lake Preserve.
The district was counting on the LWCF for future acquisitions.
“It’s a sad day to lose that,” Bainbridge parks planner Perry Barrett said.
The city of Bremerton has been particularly successful in drawing LWCF funding in recent years.
“One bedrock source for land acquisitions and development is gone,” said Wyn Birkenthal, Bremerton parks director.
He estimates that about 30 percent of all park redevelopment dollars over the last decade came from the LWCF. About $800,000 went toward the recent revamps of Lions and Blueberry parks in East Bremerton and an expansion of Evergreen Park near downtown.
Birkenthal said LWCF dollars were used to leverage state grants and other funding sources.
“With Blueberry, LWCF was the first piece, and I don’t know if the rest of the funding would have fallen into place without it,” he said. “It’s sad to see this program phased out.”
He predicted that Bremerton will need to rely more on its local tax base for future park improvements.
“Projects will take longer and there will be more competition” for state grants, he said.
Kitsap County had applied for a $500,000 LWCF grant to help purchase land south of Port Gamble for a 200-acre mountain bike park. County officials say they’re no longer counting on the grant and are seeking funding elsewhere.
Conservation and park advocates protested Congress’ failure to renew the LWCF.
“Expiration of the LWCF is outrageous,” said Vlad Gutman, senior policy director of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. The coalition produced a report last year about LWCF’s contributions to Washington’s public lands. While the program has left “an enormous legacy,” Congress has increasingly diverted oil and gas royalties away from LWCF, the report notes. Congress had appeared poised to not renew the LWCF for the last three years.
The coalition and several national groups, including the Nature Conservancy and Wilderness Society, have called on Congress to reinstate the program, but there’s little hope for action any time soon.
Opposition to the LWCF was led by Rep. Bob Bishop, R-Utah, House Natural Resources chairman. He wants more oil and gas royalties to benefit energy industry workers. He also wants to halt LWCF spending that fosters the growth of federal lands in his and other Western states.
LWCF was initiated by Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson in 1964. He said public open spaces provide Americans “refreshment of body and spirit” in a speech before the LWCF received unanimous support in the House and passed 91 to 1 in the Senate.
This year, Washington’s representatives in D.C. were at the forefront of the failed push to have the LWCF reauthorized. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, co-sponsored a bill that would have permanently reauthorized it. He also tried unsuccessfully to increase its funding.
He emphasized that LWCF-backed public lands help the region’s economy by attracting businesses and employees.
“Just like real estate, location matters, and access to natural beauty matters,” he said in June. “Employers are attracted to the Pacific Northwest for the seemingly endless opportunities to hike into our forests, kayak across our waters or fish in our rivers. The (LWCF) has been a tool to expand these opportunities in our region.”