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Deep budget cuts loom on the horizon

Thu., March 4, 2010

This is a relatively uncomplicated session at the Washington Legislature for hunters, anglers and other wildlife enthusiasts.

As distracting bills become roadkill en route to the March 11 deadline, everyone’s headlights are on the bottom line.

The Senate proposal (6813) to merge the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with the Department of Natural Resources appears to have been squashed this week. Forming a mega-agency isn’t likely to have any benefits in terms of efficiency or saving money, lawmakers reasoned.

A House proposal (2485) to restrict the Fish and Wildlife Department in purchases of land for wildlife habitat is dead. Advocates for access to hunting areas and the restoration of endangered species such as prairie grouse are applauding the measure’s demise.

But the bill’s sponsors probably generated votes among rural constituents who don’t see public land as a blessing.

There’s no talk this year of increasing the minimum age for hunters or requiring backpackers to wear fluorescent “hiker-orange” clothing during hunting seasons.

Everything has come down to the budget crisis, including proposals released Wednesday that will require even deeper cuts in the departments of Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources and State Parks.

Legislators are looking at cuts of another $5 million to $10.5 million from these agencies. The lion’s share seems to be targeted at Fish and Wildlife, which could lead to more cuts in salmon recovery, fish hatcheries and possibly even closures at some public access sites such as boat launches.

“All the agencies are gong to have to make more reductions, we understand that,” said Tom Davis, Fish and Wildlife’s legislative liaison.

“Last year they cut us from $110 million in the general fund biennial budget to $80 million. Now the Senate is proposing more cuts of possibly $8 million to $9 million. That’s pretty substantial.

“For every million we lose, we have to cut about 10 staff. We can’t keep doing the same level of work in the regions with more staff cuts.”

Washingtonians don’t have the distractions citizens have in Utah, where legislators are debating eminent domain measures to develop land the federal government is protecting in areas such as the desert outside Arches National Park.

The Utah House voted for more restrictions on public access to fishing streams that cross private property. The sponsor said he was upholding constitutional principles that protect against a “tyranny of the masses.”

But while Utah deals with table-pounding property rights zealots, Washington faces the more insidious threat of budgets being slashed with axes rather than scalpels.

The next few days of debates in Olympia will be critical for programs affecting fish, wildlife and the great outdoors.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459 5508 or e-mail

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