Investing in land, water

Politics is inimical to a long view of history. Think in terms of dog years, seven years for every human year. Time telescopes in, as judgment (driven by the next election) falls away.

Some questions transcend an accelerated political frame because they go to the core of what it means to be a Northwesterner. Conserving local and state parks, wildlife habitat and working farms breathes life into a fundamental, bipartisan value. Preserving our natural heritage for future generations is an economic and a legacy matter. Many would argue it’s a moral question as well.

Nearly a quarter century ago, former Republican Gov. Dan Evans and Democratic Rep. and Gov. Mike Lowry conceived the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP) as a vehicle to save and enhance some of our last great places. The Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office oversees WWRP grants, and the Legislature funds the program.

The WWRP is the state’s primary tool for conservation and Washington’s only vehicle for farmland preservation. More significantly, the WWRP is the largest source of funding for state and local parks as well as ball fields. To date, the WWRP has underwritten 60 projects totaling $27 million in Snohomish County. (The list includes Strawberry Farms Athletic Park in Marysville, the Skagit River Delta, the Snohomish Riverfront Trail, and development of the Centennial Trail.) The economic windfall is substantial. Washington’s recreation economy is a booming $8.5 billion industry that supports over 115,000 jobs.

The WWRP’s traditional bipartisan support has translated into projects across the state — improving trails, establishing local parks, repairing shorelines, preserving farmland and protecting forests.

Despite this support, the WWRP was threatened with elimination in Gov. Gregoire’s 2010 budget. Through a strong bipartisan push in both the House and Senate, the program was restored to less than half its 2007 funding level. This 50 percent cut slammed communities around the state as various approved projects went unfunded.

In the wake of the Great Recession, the WWRP appears less of a priority, with funding tracking with a volatile, yo-yoing economy. The program is part of the capital budget, not the operating budget, however. The battle over K-12 and other operating priorities is ancillary.

The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, the program’s organizing arm, advocates restored funding for the WWRP at $90 million. That pencils out to a modest 4.6 percent of the capital budget, and it merits the thoughtful (read: long-view) consideration of state lawmakers.

Washington’s heritage is knit together by its land, water and people — and so is the Northwest economy. Programs like the WWRP not only inform our bottom line, but also the legacy we impart to future generations.

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