Time is ripe to improve access to Rattlesnake
The state has a chance to convert a broad swath of private land on Rattlesnake Mountain to public use, and the Legislature ought to jump on it while it can.
We're reluctant to advocate any extra state spending in this economic climate.
There's not enough money to satisfy even the most basic responsibilities of government, so it's hard to argue for any project that's not absolutely necessary.
But the state Department of Fish and Wildlife's proposal to buy the nearly 13,400-acre McWhorter Ranch wouldn't divert money from the general fund.
The agency is seeking a grant from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, which uses the state's bonding capacity to preserve critical habitat.
It's not free money -- we'll have to pay it back -- but it's not money that can be used for schools or basic health care either.
If the Legislature follows its own rules, the $3.5 million grant to purchase the ranch would be awarded this session.
In fact, if the House gets its way, the acquisition is a done deal. Legislation approved by the House would make $50 million available for preservation sensitive habitat, including money to purchase McWhorter Ranch.
The Senate bill calls for less spending -- $36 million -- but the bigger problem might be the way the legislation doles out the grants.
Instead of relying on an evaluation process that ranks grant applicants based on objective criteria, the Senate decided to set its own priorities.
The process is designed to minimize political influence over the grant awards, but it can't work if politicians vote in their own priorities.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife's application for a grant to purchase the McWhorter Ranch ranked third in the critical habitat category but wouldn't be funded under the Senate bill.
The Senate, however, would provide funding for several lower-ranked proposals in other categories, and it's impossible not to suspect politics are at play.
It's not surprising that the proposal ranks high when measured against objective standards.
Supporters include local governments and conservation groups like the Ridges to Rivers Open Space Network and Friends of Badger Mountain.
Mid-Columbia residents interested in additional access to lands suitable for hiking, equestrian activities and hunting ought to lend their voices. All those activities are envisioned for the property. A walking trail to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain is even a possibility.
Times are tough, but this is a bargain -- around $260 an acre. More importantly, if the state fails to act now, the opportunity could be lost forever.