Conservation projects around state hang legislative balance: Advocates look to Inslee, Legislature to grow recreation economy, jobs

January 22, 2013

Olympia–Communities around the state are closely watching this year’s legislative session closely to see whether 124 critical land water and farmland projects across Washington will be funded by the legislature.  Advocates of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP), the state’s primary tool for land and water conservation, farmland preservation and trail and park improvements are looking for $90 million from the capital budget.

Former Governor Gregoire’s proposed budget included $65 in capital budget funds for the WWRP, an increase from 2011 that indicates a growing understanding by lawmakers of how Washington’s economy and conservation are inextricably linked.  However Gregoire’s budget falls short of the funds needed, eliminating 40 critical projects, leaving Governor Inslee and the 2013 legislature the opportunity to restore full funding and ensure that critical projects are realized.

“If WWRP funding levels fall short, the effects could be devastating for local communities who depend on conservation projects to boost their economy and provide local recreation businesses with growth and job opportunities,”  said Joanna Grist, Executive Director of Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, which advocates for the WWRP.  “Our state’s recreation economy plays a critical role in our economic health and we can’t afford to fall short now. In addition to supporting thousands of small businesses and spurring job creation, recreation opportunities contribute to the Washington way of life that entices innovative companies and individuals to make our state home.”

A recent report by nonprofit economic research group Headwaters Economics directly ties conservation to economic growth.  The report, West is Best,  finds that the western United States, including Washington State, are outpacing the rest of the country in job creation, personal income and population growth, and that protected lands– like national parks, monuments, and wilderness–are providing western states with a competitive economic advantage that helps create more jobs (especially in services industries like high-tech) and higher per capita income.

The $90 million would fund 124 projects in communities across the state that have been selected for funding using a nationally recognized independent ranking system. From developing trails near Yakima, Spokane and Wenatchee, to restoring the Seaview Dunes near Aberdeen, conserving Kitsap forests, building an ice rink in the Methow, saving farms in the Skagit or creating parks in Clark County, the projects ranked as best for the state will protect valuable land, improve opportunities for recreation businesses to thrive and have a positive effect on Washington state’s quality of life.

And outdoor recreation and the jobs it supports plays a major role in Washington’s economy.  More than one hundred thousand jobs depend on the continued preservation and protection of the lands that make the industry possible.  The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that recreation—hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing—contributes $730 billion to the US economy and supports 6.5 million jobs. In Washington State alone, outdoor recreation supports 115,000 jobs and $11.7 billion to the state economy.

In recent years the bipartisan support for the WWRP has meant that the program, which is funded through the capital budget has been able to give grants for top ranked projects in communities across the state–improving trails, establishing local parks, repairing shoreline, preserving farmland and protecting forests throughout Washington.  Projects are funded based on an independent ranking system employed by the Recreation Conservation Office (RCO).   In 2010, the WWRP was threatened with elimination in Governor’s Gregoire’s budget.  Through a strong bipartisan effort in both the House and Senate, the program was restored to $42 million. While many programs were still left unfunded, the 2011 legislature was able to save the program and ensure that many local projects were realized.  In order to meet the goals of this year’s approved list, the Coalition will be advocating for restored funding for the WWRP at $90 million.

About the Coalition
The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition is a non-profit citizens group founded in a historic bipartisan effort by former Governors Dan Evans and Mike Lowry.  The Coalition’s members consist of a diverse group of over 275 organizations representing conservation, business, recreation, hunting, fishing, farming and community interests. The breadth and diversity of the Coalition is the key to its success–no one member could secure such a high level of funding for parks and habitat on its own.