Op-Ed: State Senate diverts money toward favored projects
Washington’s natural treasures set the state apart as a wonderful place to live and work, and our quality of life and economic well-being depend on them.
Our natural beauty drives an outdoor recreation sector that is responsible for $21.6 billion in consumer spending every year and supports nearly 200,000 jobs, including 51,000 in King County alone.
Among the chief vehicles for investing in sustaining this incredible economic powerhouse is the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP). Unfortunately, the Senate Capital Budget included a proposal that undermines the integrity of WWRP and jeopardizes its future.
WWRP is the state’s largest source of funding for trail and local parks’ projects, and its conservation and recreation investments have done more to protect and restore the Puget Sound region than any other state program.
Though the Senate recommended increasing WWRP’s appropriation by $2 million over the last budget cycle, this step forward is overshadowed by its decision to replace the program’s independent selection criteria with earmarks for preferred projects.
In order to ensure that public money only flows to the highest ranked projects, the law creating WWRP established what have become nationally-recognized, independent ranking criteria. This process ensures that every community and each project competes on the merits of its proposal and that the most critical and effective projects, rather than those legislators personally prefer, receive funding.
The Senate budget subverts the law, instead diverting money toward favored projects at the expense of higher ranked ones. WWRP has earned 25 years of strong bipartisan support precisely because of the high level of trust communities and legislators have in the program, knowing that it is funding projects whose importance and excellence have been independently verified.
If the Senate shunts this system aside for an earmark program, the only thing that will truly matter for funding decisions is the political leverage of individual supporters, rather than the importance or quality of proposed projects. We simply cannot afford for this to go forward.
The Senate is also choosing to eliminate the high-ranked critical habitat, wildlife, and state parks projects that are necessary for securing recreational access for hikers, hunters, anglers and other users of our great outdoors. One of these projects cut out by the Senate is the protection of 136 acres at Beaver and Bass Lakes in the Green River Gorge, preserving important habitat and developing the area for recreational access. This complex is home to the highest diversity of bird species in King County, as well as one of the state’s 10 elk herds, several species of salmon, and numerous other important native plants and wildlife. It is also important for water quality on the Green River.
Senate representatives say that one of the reasons they cut these projects is because we need the money more for building local playgrounds and football fields. While a worthy goal, this is short-sighted. A new swing set can always be built next year, but once they are sold to developers and paved over for condos, our critical, remaining wilderness habitats and recreational areas are lost forever.
As our region undergoes increasing development, it is more important than ever to make sure we are doing our part to protect the gorgeous natural areas that drive our outdoor recreation economy and that make King County a great place to live.
Over the last 25 years, the WWRP has funded more than $100 million of natural areas and recreation opportunities in King County, including Roegner Park along the White River, Auburn Environmental Park, Game Farm Park, the Interurban Trail, and the Green River Natural Area. Particularly as our population is booming and our economy is expanding, we need to ensure that we are protecting and developing our green spaces, recreation areas and wildlife habitat.
By replacing an independent process with earmarks, the Senate’s budget threatens the integrity and future of one of the state’s most popular and successful programs. We urge Sens. Karen Keiser (D-Kent) and Joe Fain (R-Auburn) to fix the budget and secure WWRP’s future for years to come.
The Green River Coalition, formerly the Middle Green River Coalition, is a nonprofit grassroots organization working on natural resource retention, restoration of public and private land along the Green River and its tributaries. To learn more, visit www.mgrc.org.