Conservation fund cuts would affect county projects
It’s a pot of federal money that has helped develop such popular sites as Frenchman’s Bar on the Columbia River and the Salmon Creek Greenway. It’s recently been tapped to buy 81 acres of critical forest habitat at the confluence of Salmon and Morgan Creeks, south of Battle Ground, and 55 acres at Fallen Leaf Lake in Camas.
Now the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, dedicated revenue that comes from offshore oil and gas leases, is on the chopping block.
House Republicans’ continuing budget resolution, which proposes to fund the federal government through Oct. 1 after making $61 billion in budget cuts, would slash payments from the fund by 87 percent. That would represent the lowest level of funding for the program in its 45-year history. The continuing resolution expires today at midnight.
The fund, which accumulates $900 million annually, is dedicated to land purchases by federal agencies and grants to help local governments acquire conservation lands. Congress allocates the money through annual appropriations.
Local officials say it’s been an important driver of parks and conservation projects in Clark County.
The land being acquired to develop Fallen Leaf Park “is about a $2 million acquisition,” said Bill Dygert, a Vancouver parks and natural resources consultant who helps assemble financing packages for projects in Clark County. “We had to pull together different sources of money. We got $1 million from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, $500,000 from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the rest from the county’s Conservation Futures program. You pull out any one of these pots of money and you quite likely wouldn’t be able to pursue the acquisition.”
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote to the chairmen of the various House appropriations committees March 30 urging them to reconsider the 87 percent cut.
“This represents an approach to conservation and recreation funding that is dramatically out of proportion to the overall deficit reduction approach,” he wrote. “While recreation and conservation should shoulder a fair portion of the burden of the budget reduction, disproportionate cuts run counter to America’s long bipartisan tradition of protecting land and water for people and nature.”
Wyden noted that a recent national poll showed 86 percent of voters support the program. He said it creates jobs, benefits hunters and anglers, and ensures recreation access and watershed protection while keeping land in private ownership.
A similar state program faces cuts, too. The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, which has poured millions of dollars into land conservation and recreation projects in Southwest Washington since its inception in 1989, would see its funding cut by half, to $50 million, under the budget House Democrats unveiled this week.
Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget proposes eliminating funding for the statewide program, which is paid for with state construction bonds. However, her budget includes $20 million for several individual projects in the Puget Sound area
“In these times, we are thrilled to be getting $50 million,” said Joanna Grist, director of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. “It’s great for outdoor recreation. Most of all, we hope that the Senate will follow the House’s lead in respecting the time-tested ranking process that has worked for WWRP.”
Rather than “cherry pick” projects, the program, created by former Washington Govs. Dan Evans and Mike Lowry, uses independent experts to rank projects for funding in each budget cycle, Grist said.
Variety of funding sources
Pat Lee, lands manager with Clark County Environmental Services, says the county uses money from a variety of sources to acquire property, including its own Conservation Futures levy, which provides $2.4 million annually in local matching dollars. The Land and Water Conservation Fund contributed $400,000 toward the county’s purchase of streamside and mature forest habitat at the confluence of Salmon Creek and Morgan Creek.
But Lee sees non-county revenue sources for land acquisition declining. The county’s share of money from the state Salmon Recovery Board dropped from $3.5 million to $2.5 million last year. Funding from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program is iffy. And now the federal funds are at risk, as well.
“The funding climate overall is not going in a positive trend,” Lee said.
The nonprofit Vancouver-based Columbia Land Trust works with private landowners and is not eligible to apply for grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Yet the fund has been key to realizing the trust’s mission of acquiring conservation easements to protect fish and wildlife habitat throughout Southwest Washington, said director Glenn Lamb.
A good example, Lamb said, is the partnership that is working to help the city of Camas assemble land for a system of waterfront parks, including the city park at Fallen Leaf Lake.
“Ten years ago, the Columbia Land Trust acquired a grant to purchase the hillside” above the lake, he said. “We are still holding it, with the understanding that we would transfer it to Camas.”
The 43-acre site, which includes a large tract of old-growth forest, is on the west side of the lake.
In February, the Camas City Council authorized Mayor Paul Dennis to sign a purchase and sale agreement to buy an adjacent 55-acre parcel surrounding the lake for $2.05 million from Georgia-Pacific, owner of the Camas paper mill. Nearly all the money will come from federal, state and county grants.
“These resources have been helpful to Camas in executing the vision,” said Camas City Manager Lloyd Halverson.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been key in enabling local governments to buy property from individual landowners as well, Lamb added.
“There are many landowners in Clark County who have approached us who would like to see their land in conservation but can’t make an outright gift of their land.”