State spending plan draws protest from conservation, recreation groups
OLYMPIA — The state's system for distributing tens of millions of dollars for parks, trails and conservation areas was designed specifically to keep the influence of politics out.
This week, Senate budget leaders popped the lock on the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program and dove in, reshuffling nearly $70 million already ranked through an independent process that outdoor recreation and conservation groups say has earned a reputation for fairness and integrity.
"In its 25 year history, the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program has never been altered … and no attempt has been made to go behind the independent evaluation process," said Vlad Gutman, senior policy director with the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, a nonprofit representing 280 outdoor and environmental groups.
Released on Wednesday, the Senate's two-year construction budget includes $68.8 million for Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program grants. The amount is more than some WWRC members expected but it "dismantles" a system that had already decided how the money should be spent, Gutman said. In its place, Senate leaders have crafted a new a spending list that pulls money away from land purchases and pours much of it into categories they say will alleviate the maintenance and development challenges plaguing many city and county parks.
"We're suspending acquisition and redeploying (money) to other projects on the list," said Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Bainbridge Island Democrat and member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which crafted the budget.
Sen. Karen Keiser said local parks would have received 30 percent of the program's funding.
"That's really unfortunate," the Des Moines Democrat said. "(Parks funding) really effects our communities. I want a different approach with the WWRP."
The new approach amounts to "cherry picking" categories and projects to receive funding, Gutman said.
"It certainly looks this way on certain types of projects," he said.
Established in 1990, the WWRP was a bipartisan effort to avoid political squabbles over which projects should get funding. The program receives hundreds of grant applications from cities, counties, tribes, state agencies and nonprofit groups for projects ranging from public dock repairs and trail construction to land purchases for new parks and wildlife habitat protection. Expert committees made up of citizens and state officials score the projects based on a detailed evaluation criteria. This year, the coalition, which serves as the chief advocate for the WWRP, recommended spending $97 million on WWRP grants over the next two years. The state House of Representatives passed a capital budget that whittled that amount down to $75 million but proposed no changes on how the money should be spent.
House and Senate leaders will negotiate a final state budget that's due at the end of the month.
The Senate's budget would gut funding in the WWRP's "natural areas" and "critical habitat" categories, which were on track to preserve shoreline areas on Hood Canal and creek habitat in Mason County, as well as set aside lands in three Eastern Washington counties.
The proposal to shift vast sums to the "local parks" category means dozens of low-scoring parks projects would get full funding.
WWRP rankings were ignored in other categories, resulting in a scattering of newly-funded and newly-unfunded projects.
In Kitsap County, the Senate funding list would result in the loss of $3.77 million for the expansion of the Stavis Natural Resources Conservation Area near Seabeck. Proposed by the state Department of Natural Resources, the 435-acre expansion would protect forestlands along two salmon-bearing creeks and a small estuary on Hood Canal.
Four Kitsap projects would benefit from the Senate's revisions. The Sound to Olympics regional trail would get $740,000 to construct a segment in North Kitsap and Waterman Pier in South Kitsap would receive $575,000 for restoration work. Two small parks — one on Washington Boulevard in downtown Kingston and one in Port Orchard's McCormick Woods neighborhood — would each receive about $400,000 for development costs.
Projects that would receive funding either way include Kitsap County's Port Gamble Ride Park project, which seeks $500,000 to purchase a timberland for use as a mountain bike riding area, and Port Orchard's $106,000 Bay Street pedestrian path extension.
Senate budget leaders say their list reflects a long-overdue priority shift.
"We've been asking you to do this for years," Sen. Linda Parlette, R-Wenatchee, told WWRP advocates at a Ways and Means committee meeting on Wednesday. "We're not jumping around (the rankings), we've just chosen not to do acquisitions."
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he wants to slow state Department of Fish and Wildlife acquisitions in his Eastern Washington district, noting that the agency already owns more than 10 percent of Asotin County.
This isn't the first time a Senate budget upended the WWRP rankings. In 2011, senators shifted millions of dollars toward projects they said would boost job creation.
Several groups, including the Bainbridge Island Land Trust, protested the Senate's changes. The trust's request for money to expand Grand Forest Park had scored well in WWRP rankings but was left out of the Senate budget.
"After we were ranked so highly, we had reasonable confidence that if the program got funded at all, we would be in good shape," the trust's director told the Kitsap Sun in 2011. "The trust has stuck its neck out a long way."
The changes were blocked by the House, which shifted funding back to the WWRP plan.
This week, conservation groups shared similar concerns to those heard four years ago.
"We need certainty and predictability," said Bill Clarke of the Trust for Public Land.
"This is a fundamental changing of the structure of the program (and) it will hurt us long-term," Nature Conservancy lobbyist Mo McBroom told the committee.
Senators said their hands-on approach on what had been considered a hands-off program is only temporary.
"This not a permanent change," said Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, lead writer of the budget. "It's a pause — a suspension — for two years to catch up on the backlog of (maintenance) on parks and trails that are so important to citizens — more so, I believe, than land purchases."