EDITORIAL: Put wildlife, recreation program high on list
If you are a park user in Spokane County, you have been a beneficiary of the Washington Wildlife & Recreation Program.
If you are a trail user in Spokane County, you have been a beneficiary of the Washington Wildlife & Recreation Program.
Republican or Democrat, fisherman or softball player, Valleyford to Airway Heights – if you have been outdoors at all – you have almost surely used a facility purchased or enhanced with some of the $15 million spent in the county since the program was founded in 1990.
Still, former Gov. Chris Gregoire almost killed the program in 2011. She also tried to cut money for payments in lieu of taxes that make local governments whole for revenues lost when land comes off the tax rolls. She was rebuffed, and this year recommended $65 million be invested.
The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, composed of 270 business and public interest groups, supports a $90 million allocation.
New Gov. Jay Inslee, who is stepping down as an honorary member of the coalition board, will likely be receptive to a substantial number.
WWRP would be a bad place to scrimp. The program is the largest source of funding for trails and parks, only source for farmland preservation, and main source for habitat preservation. Recipients must contribute a 50 percent match. And between 2003 and 2008 the state and local expenditures helped capture $100 million in federal conservation program funding.
Appropriately, WWRP funds are allocated from the capital budget, which will not take final shape until late in the legislative session. Its share of the state’s total debt service obligations has fallen to its lowest level ever.
The process of determining where the money will be spent is remarkably apolitical. The Washington Conservation Office, with the help of expert panels, grades funding applications according to community support, threat to the property, and project benefits. They are sorted into four categories, and ranked. If members of a district’s legislative delegation objects – it’s never happened – the project is dropped from the list, but shuffling is not allowed.
Since the program started, 37 Spokane County projects of land acquisitions have been funded, but the county will be shut out this biennium if lawmakers stick with the $65 million Gregoire proposed. If the Legislature boosts funding to $90 million, the proposed purchase of conservation easements on the 110-acre Robinette Ranch near Cheney would be funded, as would a two-mile extension of the Centennial Trail at Long Lake.
In Ferry County, money would be available for the first phase of a rail-to-trail project that eventually would follow the Kettle River to the Canadian border. With the decline of mining in the area, one trail backer called it the “infrastructure of the future.”
The same could be said for many of the projects the program has already helped. That’s why it’s important it be continued.