June 6, 2013 in Outdoors, Sports

Landers: WWRP has proven its worth

By The Spokesman-Review
 

In a perfect Olympia, state lawmakers would give the same consideration to funding Eastern Washington programs as they do for those on the West Side.

Native wildlife habitat protection would be evaluated on par with developing soccer fields.

Legislators would rally kudos from hunters and anglers as well as bird watchers and hikers.

While Utopia isn’t around the corner, a program that fosters these values is alive, proven and deserving of another round of significant funding by the 2013 Washington Legislature.

The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program was founded in 1989 through a bipartisan effort. The program seeks to weed out political barriers to securing land for outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat.

WWRP has been the state’s primary source of funding for parks, trails and wildlife habitat. It is the only source of state funding for working farms.

Here’s how it works:

• The WWRP is funded by the Legislature. Gov. Jay Inslee has recommended $75 million for the next two years. The House suggests $70 million. The Senate, so far, has offered only $39 million – the lowest in the history of the program.

• The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition is a nonprofit group that supports the program and manages the evaluations that rank grant applications from cities, counties, agencies and groups for projects. Working with matching funds from groups as diverse as the Friends of the Centennial Trail and Ducks Unlimited has allowed the coalition to leverage more than $1 billion for projects in every county across the state.

• The state Recreation and Conservation Office officially distributes the money based on the rankings and holds the applicants accountable for fulfilling their projects.

Improvements to the Centennial Trail and the soccer fields at Plantes Ferry Park are obvious WWRC benefits people can see and appreciate.

Another measure of the program’s value stems from projects most people don’t notice even if they’re on top of them.

Two years ago, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the $4.6 million purchase of 7,711 acres of private timber lands on the east slope of the Cascade Mountains after years of support and negotiations facilitated by The Nature Conservancy and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The portion funded by the WWRP was critical in getting a federal grant and the support of the two heavy-hitting conservation groups to make the deal to buy private lands “checkerboarded” between public lands.

But if you went up to those checkerboard lands you would have found camps on Plum Creek Timber Company property occupied by hunters who didn’t know the land had been headed for sale to developers.

As the value of recreation property supersedes timber land, those private forest areas were destined for fences, gates and no trespassing signs.

Hunters and recreationists also faced the loss of access to public land beyond those properties and state wildlife biologists would have lost options for managing elk and deer herds.

This “Heart of the Cascades” project still has a way to go. Private groups continue to work behind the scenes for public benefit. Continued WWRP funding is the key to sealing the deals.

Prompted by a query from state Sen. Mike Baumgartner, I asked local officials, agency staffers and conservatives and liberals with knowledge of WWRP whether the program has produced any pork or stinkers.

No projects were criticized.

“WWRP’s process of vetting, reviewing and evaluating projects is one of the best in the nation,” said Tom Bugert, outreach director for the coalition.

“The Recreation Conservation Office has staff assigned to each proposed project. Once that project receives public money, the project sponsor must put together a project timeline (no more than four years) with deliverables and project milestones. Agency staff work with the project sponsor to meet these goals.”

Community priorities can change after proposing an acquisition such as Antoine Peak in Spokane Valley, but the program can deal with it.

If landowners change their minds or local governments lose their matching dollars, the WWRP money isn’t lost.

“Our program is a reimbursement process,” Bugert said. “We don’t pay for property until after it is purchased.” 

The proposed Spokane River Whitewater Park was approved for $500,000 from WWRP. But when the project stalled because of permitting issues, the money was applied to the state’s next highest-ranked project.

The ranking system is nationally recognized as a model for ensuring only the best projects receive funding. Independent experts rank the applications based on criteria such as the public benefits, level of threat to the property or presence of endangered species.

Two years ago, Gov. Gregoire, in a tough budget climate, proposed only $20 million for WWRP and scrubbing the scientific rankings for the political route of giving all the money to West Side projects.

That proposal was trounced. The state Senate should take note.

Gov. Inslee apparently learned from that experience and supports enough funding to keep WWRP thriving.

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

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