Op-Ed: WWRP: Make it robust, reliable
With bated breath, I look forward to the unfailing heralds of springtime: balsamroot in bloom, families walking our beloved trails, and longer days to enjoy all that North Central Washington has to offer. Yet, there’s another sign of spring that has almost the same level of constancy — the Legislature’s debate over one of our premier programs to bolster our state’s economy: the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP).
WWRP is our state’s primary tool for conserving natural areas and creating outdoor recreation opportunities, and is nationally praised for its technical and citizen review process that provides a solid ranked list of projects to the Legislature. In Chelan and Douglas counties alone, WWRP has invested $23 million in natural areas and parks.
But despite the program’s bipartisan roots, there has been mounting criticism of WWRP, mainly from elected officials with philosophical opposition to public lands. Recent budget debates have seen unproductive action by legislators to disassemble parts of this nationally lauded program to prove a point. This year is no exception.
Legislators have sought to defund certain parts of the WWRP while retaining others, severely damaging the credibility of the program. WWRP must have clear rules that are fair and consistently applied. Changing the rules midstream creates unnecessary uncertainties and serious disincentives for communities to apply for these grants. These cuts hit home in Chelan County — a project by the city of Wenatchee has been eliminated in the proposed Senate budget.
Attempts to cut WWRP are often based on an opinion that public lands are detrimental to rural economies. However, two bipartisan reports demonstrate the benefits of WWRP to our economy. First, the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Outdoor Recreation — which Sen. Linda Evans Parlette served on — demonstrated the tremendous return on our investments in recreational and natural lands, particularly in North Central Washington. Many were funded byWWRP. The second report was released in April by the non-partisan Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee (JLARC), which worked with economists from Washington State University to evaluate the role of public natural lands in a county’s economic vitality. JLARC found that, in general, the percentage of public lands in a county does not negatively affect economic growth — and usually has positive effects if managed for recreation. For example, the study found that Pearrygin Lake State Park positively contributes to the economies of Okanogan, Chelan, and Douglas counties.
WWRP is a powerful engine to drive our outdoor-based economy, but after 25 years of service, it’s time for a tune-up. We should conduct an assessment of what our state needs in the next decade, and then foster a conversation on ways to strengthen WWRP to meet those needs.
If we are to improve WWRP, the Legislature should consider the following:
♦ Land management: We must find viable means to finance the management of state lands. The Legislature fundsWWRP through the capital budget, which can be used to acquire and improve — but not manage — our state parks and natural lands. The Discover Pass is a partial but insufficient solution. We need new ideas to finance the operation and maintenance of our parks and natural lands.
Ten years ago, the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, the WWRP’s chief advocate, helped pass a reform that requires the state provide “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” (PILT) to counties that have state-owned lands. This is an important revenue source for rural counties, but Legislature froze PILT at 2009 levels, negatively affecting the revenue base of rural communities. We must resolve the current PILT freeze to ensure strong rural economies.
♦ Make the program more competitive: Many of the funding categories should be open to a wider selection of applicants — with clearly defined criteria for providing benefits to the communities these grants are intended to serve. Competition strengthens the program. These are steps that will have a positive impact for local communities.
But importantly, the projects that WWRP supports cannot wait. Many community projects are at risk of being permanently lost if the Senate prevents the program from doing its important work, and our economic well-being is at stake too. Another study commissioned by Legislature found that public lands in Chelan and Douglas counties support more than $280 million in consumer spending and 3,400 jobs. Quite simply, this is an economic engine that we must continue to invest in. We can’t afford not to.
Bob Bugert is executive director of the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust and board member of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition.