For 27 years, our state has had a brilliant, unbiased system for determining which conservation and recreational projects should be funded through the Legislature.
But the integrity of that system is now threatened.
The state House has cut 15 recommended land projects from its capital construction budget. This goes against the evaluation process that is supposed to protect against political meddling.
House members need to rethink this misguided approach and abide by the impartial ranking system that has worked for more than two decades.
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Every year different organizations submit applications for grants that would help them acquire, develop and restore lands around the state as part of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program.
Last year 98 local, state, tribal and nonprofit groups turned in 220 applications for consideration. Those applications were then assessed and listed in order of importance by the state Recreation and Conservation Office.
The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition helps with the program. It is a nonprofit citizen group that includes 280 members representing a variety of interests such as conservation, recreation, business, hunting, fishing and farming.
All lawmakers need to do is decide how much money can be spent on the wildlife and recreation program. The grant requests already have been prioritized.
This setup ensures that projects receive funding based on their worth, not on the political whims of lawmakers in particular legislative districts.
But now House members are trying to mess with this long-standing process, and cut projects that are ranked high on the list.
Lawmakers apparently can’t resist trying to override the coalition’s recommendations. Two years ago we scolded state Senate members for trying to do the same thing.
Eventually, the Senate decided against cherry-picking projects. We would have thought House members remembered that.
This year, the Senate has allocated $80 million for the wildlife and recreation program, with no stipulations. The House also has agreed to $80 million, but it wants to have a say in where that money goes.
“It is distressing that the House has chosen to depart from the program’s objective, expert-driven evaluation process that has been the hallmark of the WWRP since its creation in 1989,” Deborah Jensen, the coalition’s board chairwoman, said in a news release.
Coalition officials said the House proposal decimates the Critical Habitat category, and breaks the faith with grant applicants who rely on a fair evaluation process.
Two years ago, land acquisition at Candy Mountain near West Richland was part of the coalition proposal.
This biennium, it appears requests for trail improvements at Clover Island and Howard Amon Park were not deemed as critical as other projects, and likely won’t receive grants this time around. Apparently no requests came from Franklin County.
Still, we believe the ranking system for such projects is a fair approach. The Tri-Cities has benefited before from the wildlife and recreation program, and likely will again.
By politicizing the process and selecting certain projects over others, the House is trying to set an alarming precedent.
House members need to drop this tactic.
The integrity of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program list needs to endure, and quality projects should be funded without political influence.