Knight Forest, grant program in crosshairs of state budget melee
A critical project that will provide park access for thousands of families and children in our community is at risk in Olympia this year. Its fate lies in the hands of Sen. Derek Kilmer.
The Knight Forest acquisition project is one of hundreds of grants submitted statewide to the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program by local communities, parks districts and municipalities. The WWRP, which uses an independent, objective ranking system to determine the best projects, is the primary source for protecting land, water and our quality of life in Washington State.
This year, the Knight Forest project, submitted by the Peninsula Metropolitan Parks District in coordination with the Greater Gig Harbor Foundation, was ranked by the WWRP’s merit-based system as one of the most viable projects statewide.
Even as the current economic climate means the House of Representatives had to slash funding for the WWRP in their proposed capital project budget, the Knight Forest project still made the cut, as only the best projects were preserved.
The foundation has been working with the parks district since 2006 to increase available parkland in the population-dense, park-poor Artondale/Cromwell/Arletta areas. In late 2010, against many odds and with significant help from a few community families, we were able to negotiate the sale and a loan to do just that.
With assistance from the WWRP grant, years of work on this project was about to fulfill the community’s dream of recreation and community gathering areas, trails and protected forestlands.
Now, the state Senate’s budget proposal puts the project at risk.
The Senate and House budgets differ greatly in their approach to the WWRP. The House proposal significantly reduces WWRP grants below last biennium’s level, although it importantly maintains the program’s integrity. Projects are funded using the statutory funding formula determined through the time-tested ranking system that objectively identifies projects based on their merits, not political bargaining or earmarking guaranteeing every community statewide has an equal opportunity to compete for and receive funding for their projects.
The Senate’s proposal minimizes WWRP’s funding, thus its capacity, by cutting $30 million from the House’s proposal and shifting $16 million into a new fund that favors projects which purportedly will create short-term construction jobs.
Granted, both the House and the Senate have shown incredible leadership during these difficult economic times. We are grateful that the Legislature has affirmed the importance of protecting Washington’s quality of life by saving the WWRP from elimination.
While we realize the Senate’s well-intended desire to create short-term jobs, the costs of that approach would be devastating.
Knight Forest and other projects were highly ranked by an independent expert panel for a reason. High community need, risk of development, local money raised and population served were prevailing factors. The new and unproven evaluation criterion the Senate is using opens the door to future cherry-picking and earmarks.
Throwing away the integrity of the competitive ranking process, vital to the WWRP’s success, would be a terrible mistake.
Renewing WWRP funding is an essential investment in the long-term prosperity of our community. Annually, parks and recreation-based activities generate some $8.5 billion in retail dollars and millions in tax dollars, supporting 115,000 jobs statewide.
In the past 21 years, WWRP has been one of the state’s most successful programs, enjoying well-deserved support for its mandate to protect and improve parks, preserve wildlife habitat and save working farms.
The Knight Forest Project is one of many projects that will lose out if the Senate’s new system prevails. Though, the issue is much larger than a single project; it puts the WWRP’s hallmark objective, non-partisan and open process into question, placing all future conservation and recreation projects into the realm where current political whim will instead reign.
Unfortunately, politics have placed one of the few untouched areas once slated for residential development at risk once again. Without the support of both the WWRP and our community, we may lose the chance to provide a multiuse park with forested trails for area families forever.
Please encourage Sen. Kilmer to lead the Senate in re-examining this issue. Not merely for the sake of saving Knight Forest, but to ensure that future generations will have access to parks and natural areas that have made Gig Harbor a wonderful place to live, work and play.
Julie Ann Gustanski, PhD, LLM, is the President and CEO of the Greater Gig Harbor Foundation.