March 10, 2011 in Outdoors

Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program deserves Olympia’s attention

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Groups as diverse as elk hunters and bird watchers have found common ground on an issue simmering in Olympia.

Unfortunately, Gov. Chris Gregoire and lawmakers are slower to recognize the importance of the state-funded grant program that conserves parks, wildlife habitat and working farms.

The governor’s budget has recommended no money for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, which was founded in 1989 by a bipartisan coalition led by former governors Dan Evans, a Republican, and Democrat Mike Lawry.

Instead of allocating money to WWRP – a program nationally recognized for fairly prioritizing and funding projects across the state – the governor’s staff has suggested focusing $20 million on a new Puget Sound Wildlife and Recreation Program.

Higher-ranked projects in the rest of the state would be left to wither.

For 20 years, WWRP has quietly helped groups and agencies secure everything from fishing docks and local ball fields to hiking and biking trails and prized habitats where wildlife flourishes and people can fish, hike and hunt.

WWRP has meted $624 million for wildlife and recreation lands with nearly no political turmoil or controversy.

Spokane County has received 35 WWRP grants totaling $13 million for iconic local projects such as the Centennial Trail and the Quartz Mountain acquisition at Mount Spokane.

The money doesn’t just go where the votes are. For example, population-thin Asotin County has outcompeted King County for some bids, winning $3.75 million in WWRP for projects ranging from playground equipment to Blue Mountains elk winter range.

That’s the beauty of WWRP. More than 250 groups representing business, recreation and conservation support the WWRP, which improves our quality of life, leverages matching funds, creates jobs and supports local businesses.

Don’t pooh-pooh this list of supporters. It includes Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, Puget Sound Energy and the Washington State Grange, Washington Realtors and The Nature Conservancy.

But WWRP won’t get the traction it needs to survive this legislative session without individuals bringing it up to their representatives.

“I’m surprised how many legislators don’t know how WWRP works,” said Rance Block, a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation lands specialist for Washington. Block has bid for relatively small WWRP grants to help leverage real estate deals that have saved tens of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat from being developed or blocked to public access.

He was in Olympia last week lobbying legislators for WWRP support.

So was John Bottelli of Spokane County Parks, another master of using WWRP funds to get a bigger bang for the bucks generated locally.

Bottelli said the property tax revenue the county earmarks to secure open spaces through its Conservation Futures Program has been boosted 22 percent from WWRP matching grants.

A state agency, the Recreation and Conservation Office, coordinates the review and ranking of proposals and distributes the grants through a competitive process based on rules set by statute.

This helps guarantee that only the most worthy new park, habitat and farm projects are funded.

Last summer, volunteer scientific panels sat through detailed presentations on 2011 project proposals. They screened 273 applications and ranked them on resource criteria.

But all that work could be scrapped as the governor suggests ignoring this process and funding only cherry-picked Puget Sound projects – many of which WWRP ranked low on the state’s priority list.

For instance, in the categories of “farmland preservation” and “riparian protection,” the governor’s proposal would ignore WWRP’s top priority projects. Instead, it would provide funding for Puget Sound projects that ranked dead last in the WWRP process.

With all due respect, that’s crazy.

The governor’s staff says it’s trying to prioritize projects that produce jobs.

Sure, a public park restroom project in Puget Sound will provide jobs for a few months, but helping secure big-game winter range or funding a highly ranked conservation easement on a Colville-area cattle ranch will help create jobs and sustain small communities forever.

A few other points:

• The real estate market is ripe for getting high value at reasonable cost.

• Highjacking WWRP funding snubs groups that have gone through this session’s selection process and discourages those who might organize projects in the future.

• The notion that the West Side population core would benefit only from projects in Puget Sound is easily disproved by parking on Snoqualmie Pass on Friday afternoon or Sunday evening and observing the traffic flow.

Considering the state’s budget crisis, it’s reasonable that WWRP would not be funded at the $100 million requested, or even the $70 million it received last biennium.

But the legislature should, at the very least, take the $20 million the governor has proposed for Puget Sound to restore funding for WWRP.

Then just let the program do what it’s done fairly, pork-free and statewide for 20 years.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or e-mail richl@spokesman.com.

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