Editorial: State grant program for parks deserves full funding

By The Herald Editorial Board

After putting the effort into tuning up a car, it’s smart to take it for a drive to make sure everything’s working and running smoothly.

The same logic applies to the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, which for more than 25 years has been the state’s premiere recreation and conservation grant program. Coupled with matching funds from communities, other agencies and groups, the program has created, expanded and refurbished state and local parks and trails, promoted access to public lands, protected wildlife habitat and helped preserve working farmland.

In Snohomish and Island counties, the matching grant program has help build the Centennial, Interurban and Whitehorse trails, helped Edmonds acquire the Civic Center Field, preserved farmland at Ebey’s Reserve, is restoring estuary on Smith Island, renovated Mukilteo Lighthouse Park and more.

In all, $88.8 million in state funds over the last 20 years, paired with matching funds, have provided $171 million in projects in the two counties, according to figures provided by the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates for the program.

Two years ago, a handful of lawmakers in the state Senate began tinkering under the hood of the program, administered by the state Recreation and Conservation Office. Since the program’s inception the office has objectively ranked grant requests for projects on criteria that included community support, immediate threat by development, enhancement of habitat, quality of views, diversity of uses, public demand and other criteria.

Out of a understandable concern for a backlog of renovation and maintenance work at state parks, some lawmakers proposed scraping the conservation office’s prioritized list of grant requests for park, recreation and habitat projects, substituting their own ranking of projects.

Support for the program’s independence prevented the attempt by senators to substitute their priorities for the office’s objective ranking, but what followed last year was legislation, supported by the recreation coalition and others, that has better focused the program and added needed improvements.

The legislation rebalances the amount allocated to projects: 45 percent for recreation programs, 45 percent for habitat conservation and 10 percent for farmland and working forest preservation. Other changes improve access to under-served urban and rural communities, makes land trusts eligible for more habitat conservation projects and recognizes the maintenance needs at existing state and local parks.

With those improvements in place, it’s time to make a full investment in the Wildlife and Recreation Program.

In recent budget years, the Legislature has allocated only a portion of the grants requested by the Recreation and Conservation Office, including $55 million in 2015-17, $65 million in 2013-15 and $42 million in 2011-13.

This year’s grant requests totaled $162 million. The state agency used its formula to identify $120 million in projects in its capital request. Gov. Jay Inslee, in the budget he presented to lawmakers, allocated $100 million in grant funding.

Even at a funding level of $100 million, Snohomish and Island counties stand to benefit, receiving up to $3.5 million for Island County projects and up to $6.7 million for projects in Snohomish County.

Among Snohomish County projects are $1.09 million for further development of the Whitehorse Trail; $1 million for the North Creek Regional Trail; $625,000 for Stanwood’s Hamilton Landing Park; $500,000 each for city parks in Everett, Marysville and Arlington; and $1.38 million for farmland preservation at the Bailey and Reiner farms.

Two Island County’s projects would assist an effort to create a county park at Whidbey Island’s Barnum Point, acquiring property and shoreline access with grants totaling $2.47 million, boosting nearly $3 million in matching donations of cash, property, grants and conservation futures.

These state grants, which encourage community support through matching grants, support a vital part of the state’s economy.

Outdoor recreation in Washington supports more than 227,000 jobs and generates $22.5 billion in economic activity. The parks and public lands, themselves, also provide an invaluable resource that improves our quality of life and promotes activities that keep our bodies and minds healthy.

Lawmakers have difficult decisions ahead to fairly allocate the revenue available, but having tuned the engine of the Wildlife and Recreation Program, it’s time to give it a full tank of gas and get it out on the road.

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