In 1989, as urban growth and sprawl were gobbling up the state’s greenery, Washingtonians came up with a model system for preserving a share of the threatened lands for the public.
That model could come undone this session if the state Senate abandons what has been an apolitical project-selection process.
To their credit, Senate Republicans want to allocate serious money – $68.8 million – to the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program. The problem lies in how they allocate it.
Under the 26-year-old program, a state agency, the Recreation and Conservation Office, has been vetting properties nominated for purchase or improvement. Much of the Foothills Trail was acquired through this process, as were hundreds of acres on the Nisqually and Mashel rivers that are coming together as a major state park. The program has funded many dozens of projects in the South Sound since 1990.
The process is careful and strategic. Experts study the merits of each property. Land proposed for habitat conservation, for example, is evaluated for its uniqueness, diversity of wildlife, degree of threat, potential for public use and other key factors.
Farmland proposed for protection is evaluated by similar criteria, as well as for such agricultural values as job-creation, soil quality, aquifer restoration and farm-to-market potential.
When the projects are scored, some properties rise to the top, some rank lower and others don’t make the cut at all. The Legislature has decided how much to invest, and the projects have been funded from the top of the list down.
It takes professional expertise, often scientific expertise, to evaluate the nominated projects. The public has been well served by the process.
This year, however, the Senate has taken some big steps toward politicizing the decisions. In its capital budget, high-ranked projects are passed over in favor of lower-ranked ones. Recommended purchases of natural areas and critical habitats get no funding at all.
At the same time, the Senate budget funds at least 40 county and city park improvements that otherwise wouldn’t have qualified.
Everyone loves new playground equipment, playing fields, tot lots and waterparks. We’d welcome the creation of an off-leash dog area at Point Defiance, which is on the Senate’s list.
But popularity-driven decisions can be short-sighted. A potential football field already owned by the public is going to be around two or three years from now; a threatened tract of wildlife habitat may not be.
It would be one thing if the Senate were developing a thoughtful new process to replace the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program. The 1989 law can no doubt be improved. But that’s not happening: Senators are simply substituting their judgments for the deliberative approach of the Recreation and Conservation Office.
Lawmakers won’t always get it wrong. Sunnyside Republican Jim Honeyford, who chairs the Senate capital budget committee, offers plausible reasons for skipping far down the farmland preservation list to grab two low-ranked ranches in Klickitat County. On the whole, though, ad hoc decisions by legislators are a poor substitute for the systematic approach the state has been using for 25 years.
If senators believe the existing process needs fixing, they should fix it. What they shouldn’t do is replace the process with nothing beyond the whims of whichever lawmakers happen to hold the purse strings in a given session.