Op-Ed: Wildlife habitat, once lost, cannot be regained
ONE of the many challenges our state Legislature faces is funding capital projects. These are the investments we make for our state’s future. Among them are investments in outdoor recreation and wildlife-habitat protection.
Twenty-six years ago, we joined then-Gov. Booth Gardner to establish the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program. Over the years, it has provided funding for a broad range of land protection and outdoor-recreation projects, including park acquisition and development, habitat conservation, farmland preservation and construction of outdoor-recreation facilities.
We envisioned it as a way for the state to accomplish two goals: first, to acquire valuable recreation and habitat lands before they were lost to other uses; second, to develop recreation areas for a growing population. Since inception, the program has enjoyed widespread, bipartisan support from our state’s governors, the Legislature and other groups, such as the many organizations comprising the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition.
Now the state Senate is proposing to reallocate funding from habitat-related categories to those categories supporting local parks and trails. State Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, the Senate’s capital budget lead, recently wrote in The Seattle Times an explanation for the Senate’s position.
We applaud Honeyford’s commitment to funding outdoor recreation in this state. We are heartened by his recognition that our state’s growing population needs better access to outdoor recreation.
However, that same population growth endangers wildlife habitat that, once lost, cannot be regained. Our state remains in need of more and improved wildlife habitat. Many species are in decline as the population grows and available habitat is lost. We must continue to protect critical species and habitat, and preserve our natural heritage.
Furthermore, we reject the false choice that pits habitat and outdoor recreation against one another. Both are critically needed to serve our growing population. In fact, most of the habitat lands acquired by the state also provide public access for outdoor recreation. The state faces a plethora of demands for more natural areas, fish and wildlife habitat, and outdoor-recreation opportunities. We can’t ignore a single one of these needs.
That is why we joined together to establish the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, a competitive grant program to which state and local agencies, nonprofit organizations and Indian tribes may apply. Independent panels of experts evaluate projects to ensure that only the best projects receive state funds. Project sponsors must bring proposals with full community support, as evidenced by local matching funds, volunteers, donations and letters of support. This program is a refreshing alternative to legislative earmarking for specific projects, which is how projects were funded in Washington before the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, and is how projects are funded in most other states.
Not every element of the program is sacrosanct. In 2005, the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition worked with legislators to establish the “farmland preservation” category, the “riparian” category, and a set-aside funds for renovation and rehabilitation of state lands. In 2009, the coalition again requested reforms, allowing nonprofit conservation organizations to compete in certain program-funding categories. In each case, the Legislature held hearings during the course of the session on proposed amendments.
This year, the coalition is proposing to convene an independent and open process to re-evaluate and update the statute. The Washington Recreation and Park Association, which represents the local parks departments whose projects would be funded under the Senate budget, also supports the coalition’s proposal. Both organizations are asking the Legislature to restore the allocation formulas included in the current statute.
We look forward to seeing recommendations on new improvements, as we have each year they are proposed. But those should be accomplished by legislation, not just budget provisos. In the meantime, we are asking the Legislature to protect the integrity of the current Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program and to restore funding for every category of outdoor recreation and wildlife-habitat needs.
Dan Evans was Washington’s governor from 1965-77 and U.S. senator from 1983-89. Mike Lowry was governor from 1993-97 and served as U.S. representative from 1979-89, representing the 7th Congressional District. They are the founding co-chairs of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition.