[Seattle, WA] At a moment when much of the buzz in Olympia is focused on bipartisan conflict, a bill modernizing a successful 25-year old program passed with remarkable bipartisan and bicameral support. The Washington Wildlife & Recreation Program (WWRP) is our state’s premier recreation and conservation grant program, founded in a historic bipartisan effort by former Governors Dan Evans (R) and Mike Lowry (D). That bipartisan legacy continues today with a freshly passed bill that modernizes the program and was co-sponsored by Republicans and Democrats in both chambers, overwhelmingly passing in the Senate by a 44-2 vote.
The WWRP grant program has played a significant role in our state’s landscape and quality of life, investing over $1.3 billion into state and local parks, trails, wildlife habit, and working farms. “Access to outdoor recreation opportunities makes for strong communities. These opportunities also create “playgrounds” for the customers of this state’s many outdoor recreation-oriented businesses” said Marc Berejka, director of Government and Community affairs at REI.
Today’s passage of the bill marks even greater access to the program in underserved communities, such as low-income areas, communities of color, and tribal governments. WWRP will offer reduced or waived match requirements in communities where pulling together full matching dollars would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.
“The changes are a boon for undeserved communities and improve access to the opportunities that WWRP can bring to them. It serves the WWRP’s purpose and mission to understand what these communities need” said Rudy Salakory of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.
Other updates to the program include long-term stewardship and improved public access on state-owned conservation lands – a major concern raised by legislators last session.
The popularity of these updates is largely due to an extensive campaign of stakeholder engagement by the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) which administers WWRP.
“The review of the 25-year-old grant program was extensive, including dozens of statewide meetings and comments from more than 400 people,” said Kaleen Cottingham, director of the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office, which administers WWRP. “The thousands of thoughtful comments we received helped shape the bill that passed yesterday. It’s really a great outcome. The Legislature made substantial changes to improve the WWRP, ensuring that it will remain a premiere and important grant program for the next 25 years and beyond.”
This outreach followed on the heels of a heated 2015 legislative debate over whether WWRP truly met the current needs of our state, with some questioning whether it would even survive the session. These debates lead to Senator Linda Evans Parlette (R -12) calling on RCO to review the grant program and recommend statutory revisions to modernize WWRP.
In order to reach such widespread buy-in, however, some concession had to be made. One of the less-savory changes to the program includes cuts in wildlife habitat funding. The Washington Wildlife & Recreation Coalition, WWRP’s premier advocate comprised of over 280 corporate, nonprofit, and community partners expressed concern with these cuts, but is largely supportive of the changes overall.
“This bill goes a long way to modernizing the WWRP to make it more accessible, transparent, and accountable. Despite concerns with reduced funding for habitat projects, we are pleased to see improved stewardship and public access on state lands, and are confident that these changes will bring broader statewide support for greater WWRP funding to protect our state’s most valuable habitat and recreation areas.” said Joe Mentor, President of the Wildlife & Recreation Coalition. “Senators Honeyford and Keiser and Representatives Tharinger and DeBolt deserve a tremendous amount of credit for recognizing WWRP’s vital role in making our state such a prosperous and beautiful place to live, work, and play.”