Needed reforms for state parks and recreation grants program

A legislative maneuver last year threatened to politicize the objective process used to distribute grant money to recreation and wildlife projects throughout the state. But this year, rather than seeking to protect their own turf, lawmakers and the supporters of parks, recreation, wildlife habitat and working farms and forests have crafted legislation that offers needed reforms to the 25-year-old Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program that should revitalize the program and rebalance the work that it does for another 25 years.

The Wildlife and Recreation Program, administered by the state’s Recreation and Conservation Office and funded each biennium by the state, reviews grant requests from cities, counties, agencies and organizations for park acquisition and development, habitat conservation and farmland preservation. Since 1990, the program has provided more than $30 million in funding for more than 60 projects in Snohomish County, including the Centennial and Interurban trails and estuary restoration on Smith Island. Every two years, grant requests are ranked by the Recreation and Conservation Office based on community support, immediate threat by development, enhancement of habitat, diversity of use and other criteria.

But last year, as the program sought $97 million in funding during last year’s capital budget process, some lawmakers in the state Senate sought to throw out the ranked list and pick and choose the projects that would be funded, seeking to suspend the purchase of property to fund a backlog of park construction. Instead, the ranking system was preserved, but only $55 million in projects were funded.

Even though last year’s attempted end-run around an objective process was ill-considered, the concerns of lawmakers and others about the backlog of infrastructure work were legitimate. The Recreation and Conservation Office and groups such as the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition and Washington Recreation and Parks Association backed a process to review the law and seek reforms to the program. The results are Senate Bill 6227 and House Bill 2509.

The legislation would rebalance the funding provided, 45 percent for recreation programs, 45 percent for habitat conservation and 10 percent for farmland and forestland conservation.

The revisions to the program also would:

  • Improve access to grants in underserved communities by waiving all or part of a requirement for a match by a project’s supporters;
  • Simplify the system used to rank projects and adding a new separate account for projects related to preserving working farmland and forestland;
  • Strengthen public access for lands acquired through the program, while allowing some transparent restrictions necessary for sensitive habitat and public safety; and
  • Allow land trusts to compete for more grant funding for habitat conservation.

The slide in funding for the program remains a concern for the Wildlife and Recreation Coalition and others. More than $100 million was allocated in the 2007-09 budget, but the amount allocated has dropped in recent years to $65 million in the 2013-15 budget and $55 million in last year’s session.

The hope, said Adam Goch, policy coordinator for the Wildlife and Creation Coalition, is that the proposed reforms will rebuild confidence and support for the program among lawmakers.

The legislation has bipartisan support in House and Senate. The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Parks recommended passage of the bill and moved it on to the rules committee. Passage this session is necessary, because work will being late this year on grant applications prior to next year’s budget process.

Rather than opening up a grant process to politics, lawmakers and stakeholders have come together to craft reforms that will strengthen an important tool that protects habitat, farmlands and working forestlands and promotes parks and recreation programs in our communities.

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