Op-Ed: State needs to invest in outdoors
Twenty-five years ago, Washington’s political leaders had the foresight to come up with a system for preserving our natural resources, wilderness treasures and green spaces as the population of our region grows.
This program, the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP), has since then become a national model of good governance. The WWRP’s responsible use of public funds invested in the most impactful outdoor projects makes our state a good place to live and work. This year, the state Senate is trying to end all that.
Over the years, WWRP has invested over $25 million into improving quality of life and making Kittitas County a destination for recreation. WWRP helped create the Irene Rinehart Riverfront Park, the Iron Horse Trail, numerous access points along the Yakima River and different trail facilities around Cle Elum.
In no small part because of WWRP, Kittitas County has been able to develop our natural treasures into a thriving outdoor recreation and tourism economy. A study prepared for the state legislature found that recreation on public lands in Kittitas County supports over $113 million in spending and 1,200 jobs each year. This means that 12 percent of all private sector nonfarm jobs in the county depend on these projects that preserve and develop our great outdoors.
As a banker, I see the impact outdoor recreation plays in supporting small businesses around our region. Fishing gear shops, guide services, and raft, tubes and other outdoor equipment rental shops along with the numerous restaurants and hotels that serve tourists are all examples of businesses that benefit from this support. As an outdoor enthusiast and hunter, I know the importance of public lands and the backcountry recreation they provide to our way of life here in Central Washington — a natural heritage I want to preserve and pass on to future generations.
This year, Kittitas County is set to receive $6 million from WWRP in the House budget for projects to reduce wildfire risk, improve water security, and support wildlife habitat and recreation. However, the Senate budget zeroes out funding for all projects in Kittitas County! Although the Senate budget shows $68.8 million for WWRP, close to the House’s $75 million, the Senate budget abandons funding for all projects in Kittitas County.
High-ranked projects eliminated in the Senate budget include the Heart of the Cascades, which, in addition to preserving and securing access to pristine Cascade wilderness, ensures continued protection of our watershed lands to protect water quality. Also eliminated by the Senate is a grant to L.T. Murray Wildlife Forest to thin 500 acres of forest to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. Especially as we enter into a particularly dry year with high wildfire danger, it is absurd for the Senate to not recognize the importance of these projects.
At the heart of WWRP is its independent evaluation and ranking process. Independent experts study and score each project proposal. For example, a wildlife habitat project will be evaluated on its ecological significance, the degree of threat, and how the project contributes to recreation.
By law, projects are funded by rank. This means that projects receive funding based on their quality and importance. All communities have a fair shot to receive funding, and there is no role for political connection or horse-trading.
The Senate also wants to scrap this fair process. Largely ignoring the independent rankings and rewriting the law behind the program, the Senate budget funds local parks projects, mostly in urban Western Washington, at the expense of backcountry recreation projects, mostly in Central and Eastern Washington. In the process, Kittitas County loses big.
Outdoor recreation and tourism are a significant part of our economy in Central Washington that we need to continue investing in. The vast majority of projects cut by the Senate are at risk of being privately developed and need to receive funding this year. A new playscape at a park in Seattle can survive being funded next year; a threatened piece of wildlife habitat, and the way of life and economy it supports, will be lost for good.
We need the Senate to recognize the importance of WWRP and restore the program and the outdoor investments it makes in Kittitas County.
Pam Wilson is a vice president and manager of the Ellensburg branch of the Cashmere Valley Bank. She is also an outdoor enthusiast.