OLYMPIA – Legislation expected to be signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire tomorrow will provide significant new funds to protect the state’s rivers, lakes, streams, and saltwater areas, helping to ensure that our waters remain clean and healthy for generations to come.
The new provision, passed by the legislature last month as SB5396, adds a new category to the highly acclaimed Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP), the first major amendment to the program since its inception in 1990. The nationally recognized WWRP empowers local communities to acquire land for outdoor recreation opportunities and wildlife habitat protection through a competitive grant process.
Under the provisions of the new bill, counties and other local governments can now apply for WWRP grants to protect and/or restore shorelines, rivers, streams, estuaries and other waterways. The funds can be used to protect the lands along these waterways or the waterways themselves and for projects as wide-ranging as cleaning up a polluted river to protecting a watershed so as to keep it ecologically healthy.
Depending on how much money the legislature directs to the WWRP, as much as 30 percent of the program’s funds could go towards marine and freshwater protection in the next legislative cycle, which begins in 2007. The legislature this year appropriated $50 million for the WWRP.
“Water is the wellspring of life. And taking care of our waters—from the Puget Sound to the Yakima River—is essential to our region’s ecological health,” said David Weekes, head of the Nature Conservancy’s Washington chapter, which advocated on behalf of the legislation. “The passage of this legislation is tremendous news, and we thank the legislature and governor for their foresight.”
Eric Johnson, a Lewis County commissioner, said the new provision will help counties working to implement shoreline management plans and critical areas ordinances.
“This bill is great for counties,” he said. “Currently, counties have few options when it comes to protecting important waterways. This provision will provide a significant and new infusion of resources at a time when the health of our freshwater and marine bodies has become more important than ever.”
SB5396 also requires the state to make payments in lieu of taxes to local counties for those lands that the state Department of Natural Resources purchases and/or protects as habitat. This will affect all of the state’s Natural Area Preserves and Natural Resource Conservation Areas, including ones already established.
A final provision of the bill adds a new farmland protection category to the program, giving local governments the opportunity to apply for WWRP grants to protect working farms, lands that will stay in private hands and remain active agricultural enterprises for generations to come. As much as 10 percent of the WWRP’s funds could go towards farmland protection.
“This gives counties and cities a powerful new tool to help keep farmers farming,” said Terry Hunt, president of the Washington State Grange. “As such, it’s a significant boost in ensuring that we protect the economic health and vitality of our rural communities.”
The new legislation enhances a program that is already considered incredibly successful. Over the past 15 years, the legislature has appropriated more than $450 million for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, creating new neighborhood parks, ball fields, and trails and conserving thousands of acres of exceptional wildlife habitat. This year’s appropriation of $50 million will provide funding for approximately 70 projects in more than 25 counties across the state.
The bill passed by wide margins in both chambers, after a coalition of conservationists, farm advocates, representatives of county governments, Realtors, and others came together in support of the legislation. The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, an independent organization established to secure funding for the WWRP, played a lead role in the effort.
“This is a significant advancement for a program that has already done so much for the people of Washington state, their communities, and the parks and wildlife areas we all cherish,” said Craig Lee, who chairs the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. “This will only strengthen a program that is already the envy of people in other parts of the country.”