Clock clicking down on federal fund for Tri-City parks, pools

The clock is ticking down on a federal fund that helps pay for parks and pools in the Tri-Cities unless Congress takes action.

Fewer than 100 days are left for Congress to renew the 50-year-old Land and Water Conservation fund, which has helped preserve land in Washington from Mt. Rainier to Juniper Dunes. If Congress does not reauthorize the program, it will expire.

Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., understand that reauthorizing the fund is a critical part of promoting an outdoor recreation industry that supports nearly 200,000 jobs in Washington, said Joanna Grist, executive director for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition.

But Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., has concerns about the bill proposed to keep the fund past Sept. 30, his staff said. He’s concerned that the bill has strayed too far from its original purpose.

The late Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson introduced the original act, which has provided more than $600 million in grants in Washington for national, state and local parks, trails, fishing access and other outdoor recreation.

A portion of the money paid by energy companies for offshore oil and gas leases is set aside to protect land and water for public use. The original legislation authorized $900 million annually from the leases to be used for the Land and Water Conservation fund.

Just $306 million went into the fund last year.

Since the fund was created, more than $18 billion that could have gone into the fund has been diverted from its original conservation purpose, supporters say.

“It is the government’s primary investment tool for ensuring that children and families have access to close-to-home recreation, having funded over 42,000 projects,” said a bipartisan letter to House Appropriations Committee leaders signed by more than 200 representatives this spring. Newhouse was not among them.

Dollars from the fund have been used at some of the Tri-Cities’ most popular parks, including Sacajawea State Park and Columbia Park in Kennewick. It has contributed to keeping Tri-City kids cool in the summer at the Kennewick city pool, Prout Pool in Richland and the Badger Mountain Spray Park.

It has helped pay for Yakima River access, Highland Park in Pasco, Vista Park in Kennewick and Burlington Park in Connell. Regionally, money has been spent at Mid-Columbia national wildlife refuges, Potholes State Park and Camp Wooten State Park. If the fund is reauthorized, $840,000 is set to be spent on stream restoration in the Umatilla National Forest.

One of the largest recent local projects for the fund was the Sacagawea Heritage Trail, the 23-mile trail along both sides of the Columbia River in the Tri-Cities. It contributed $738,000 for the project. Public access was reestablished between the river and downtown Kennewick, the levees were expanded to allow better walking paths, park facilities were improved and wetland trails were extended.

“We must reauthorize and fully fund this critical, effective program,” Cantwell said in a statement released by the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, a nonprofit group that promotes public funding for Washington’s outdoors. Cantwell is the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

But Newhouse has reservations about the House bill proposed to reauthorize the fund, according to his staff.

“He does support the goal of the Land and Water Conservation fund, which has improved state and federal recreation and conservation sites in Washington state and across the nation,” said Will Boyington, his spokesman.

But there is a difference between not letting the fund expire and giving it permanent authorization, which the House bill would do, Boyington said. Newhouse does not favor permanent authorization. The original bill was good for 25 years, then was reauthorized.

Newhouse also is concerned that the split between money for federal and state projects paid for with the fund has grown increasingly lopsided over the years.

His staff referred to the testimony of Domenic Bravo, vice president of the National Association of State Park Directors, at a spring subcommittee hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee, on which Newhouse serves.

Originally 60 percent of the money in the program were set aside for state and local projects, and the remaining 40 percent for federal agency land acquisition. But since then the balance has shifted to 12.5 percent for states and 87.5 percent for federal land acquisition and other federal programs, Bravo said.

A chart prepared by the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition sees the split differently, dividing money spent half and half between federal spending, and state and local spending. Half of the spending during the past decade has gone to the Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management.

The other half has a portion going to state and local parks and grants, with additional large portions going to fish and wildlife habitat conservation grants and for forest programs, the coalition said. It represents 280 organizations with business, recreation, hunting, fishing, farming, community and conservation interests.

Newhouse also wants the federal government to address its backlog of billions of dollars worth of maintenance needed on federal property before acquiring more property, Boyington said.

Supporters of the fund say many of the acquisitions made for federal projects are for pockets of nonfederal land within national parks and other holdings, making management more efficient.

Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin has been urging Newhouse to support the fund. One of the major attractions for businesses locating in Benton County is the quality of life, which is tied to recreation, he said. Money from the fund can be used to leverage money from other sources to help pay for local recreation projects.

The fund has been one of the sources of money that the jurisdictions of Visit Tri-Cities has depended on, said Kris Watkins, Visit Tri-Cities president.

“I would hate to see it go,” she said. “Recreation is a huge part of our tourism portfolio in the Tri-Cities and the state.”

Cutting money for recreation would have an impact on tourism in a state known for its great trails, hiking, biking and parks, she said.