EDITORIAL: Change fails spirit of state wildlife programs
A state Senate capital budget that provides nothing in the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program for buying natural areas, or critical and urban wildlife habitat, has many longtime supporters grousing, but even they grant that a re-examination is overdue.
Since its creation in 1990, more than $1 billion has been dedicated to trails, habitat and farmland preservation, local parks and other categories. An impressive total of 246 Spokane County projects have been beneficiaries, although that count includes multiple expenditures for major purchases, such as land for the Antoine Peak Conservation Area.
The projects are ranked within categories by expert, independent groups that submit their lists to the state Recreation and Conservation Office. The process has been fair to every county, and the Legislature is supposed to abide by the rankings as they distribute money.
The 280-member Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition proposed a $97 million budget for the program in the upcoming biennium. Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget sets aside $70 million, the House version $75 million.
The Senate budgets $68.8 million, but it’s how – not how much – that money would be spent that has provoked some coalition members who oppose a departure from mandated practice.
Money that had been ticketed for wildlife habitat purchases would instead be dedicated to buying or developing land for urban and suburban parks that need renovation, along with playgrounds, bathrooms, ballfields and water parks.
A pathway around Mirror Pond in Manito Park is among the additional projects that would be funded, but the preponderance of dollars goes to West Side parks.
Coalition members told the Senate Ways and Means Capital Committee the changes came out of the blue, and that they had only a few hours to prepare a response. The development of new project lists starts years before they might be funded, they said, and setting aside that work without warning wastes a lot of heartfelt effort.
A coalition statement accused the Senate of “dismantling crucial parts of the program” by “cherry picking categories and projects.”
Witnesses expressed more frustration than anger.
“We want to work on things you want to fund,” said Bill Clarke of the Trust for Public Land. “We need predictability.”
Capital Committee Chairman Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, characterized the Senate plan as a two-year pause while legislators, coalition members and other interests convene to review the program, and especially its past emphasis on land purchases.
Convincing the coalition his commitment is sincere may be the easy part. With the Senate Republican and House Democratic majorities barely speaking, there’s not much habitat for compromise in Olympia.
The Wildlife and Recreation Program has been a success for Washington residents who use the lands and facilities purchased, fill the 227,000 jobs tied to outdoor recreation, or indirectly benefit from the $22 billion in economic activity generated.
If legislators decide to re-evaluate, they should tread carefully.