State trail maintenance fund looks to be taking hit

For want of a park, many of the state's trail systems may be lost -- to underbrush, overuse and, eventually, a chaos of downed trees.

Lost, too, will be the majority of the seasonal trail-crew workers who keep this region's National Forest lands from falling into such disrepair.

That appears to be the tradeoff made this spring, when state legislators swept $9.56 million from a fund previously dedicated to trail maintenance and development grants into the state's general fund for the 2009-2011 budget.

The move helped save the Washington State Parks system, which faced the prospect of having to close as many as 40 parks. But it leaves the Nonhighway and Off-Road Vehicle Activities (NOVA) fund empty, meaning no NOVA grants will be available for the biennium.

Because NOVA grants have become a primary source of funding for trail maintenance, the loss of money will affect almost every land-managing agency and every type of trail user, from off-road vehicle (ORV) users and mountain bikers to hikers and backcountry horsemen.

The National Forest trail system figures to take the biggest hit. The Naches and Cle Elum ranger districts have long depended on NOVA grants for their trails-program budgets.

"It's maybe not the worst-case scenario, but it's a pretty bad scenario," said resources assistant Mike Rowan of the Naches Ranger District, which expects to lose 26 of its 40 seasonal employees over the next two years.

Things look even more bleak in the Cle Elum district, which expects to lose about 70 percent of its recreation and trails budget.

Losing NOVA "is going to be pretty profound," said Tim Foss, who manages the Cle Elum district's trails, wilderness and ORV programs. "We have about 30 people, both permanents and seasonals, who work in recreation here. We anticipate being down to six or seven -- we're talking about losing 23 of them. It's huge. It's a great big hit. I've never seen anything quite like it."

Clubs in the ORV community are up in arms over the loss of grant money. It was, they contend, their money to begin with.

NOVA money comes from ORV license tab fees and funds generated from the ORV portion of the gas tax. Since 1973, ORV users have waived their rights to a fuel-tax refund with the understanding that the money raised would be used to develop, maintain and manage trails and nonhighway road systems. Two years ago, ORV groups asked state lawmakers to more than double ORV use-permit fees to finance trail maintenance and improvements.

With Forest Service recreation budgets in the Pacific Northwest region a fraction of what they were in the early 1990s, ranger districts have increasingly turned to NOVA grants administered by the Recreation and Conservation Office (formerly known as the Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation). The Cle Elum district has received about $4 million in NOVA grants since 1996, while Naches has received about $3.4 million over that time.

The current financial crisis, though, left the governor and the state Legislature facing a $6 billion shortfall that grew to $9 billion by the time the legislative session ended. Although the appropriation of NOVA funds wasn't in Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed budget in December, the budget approved by the Legislature moved both the NOVA money and another $9.8 million from the Boating Facilities Program into the general fund to rescue the flagging state parks budget.

"I think the Legislature found itself in a much tougher situation than we did and probably extended what the governor did, and that is look for balances in other funds to help solve their general fund problem," said Victor Moore, the governor's budget director. "In order to save the programs they thought were a higher priority, they moved from various funds to protect state parks from deeper cuts."

That movement of money from one pot to another is fairly typical during the budget process, Moore said: "There's a whole host of transfers from various dedicated accounts to the general fund."

Trail users, however, say lawmakers overstepped their bounds.

"We feel like somebody stuck a stick in and broke it off," said Dave Walters, land-use coordinator for a Tri-Cities off-roading group called the Peak Putters. "It is, as far as we are concerned, an illegal taking of the money."

That argument may ultimately be decided in a courtroom. The Northwest Motorcycle Association and the Washington Off Highway Vehicle Alliance are jointly preparing to sue the state over the NOVA account.

State officials believe they're on firm legal ground, according to legal counsel for the Senate Ways and Means Committee. They point to two previous court decisions, one in 2003 after the Legislature lowered its employer contributions to a state pension fund in order to balance the state budget. The state Supreme Court upheld the state's right to do it.

Cassandra de la Rosa, executive director of the Retired Public Employees Council of Washington --the plaintiff in that 2003 lawsuit -- said she couldn't see any way the state pension issue could apply to the NOVA case.

"I fail to see how the state can take money that individuals have put into a program and then take the money and run," de la Rosa said. "At least with the pension systems, (state officials) are obligated to continue paying benefits."

In 2005, the Northwest Motorcycle Association sued over disbursal of the ORV gas-tax portion of the NOVA account, but courts ruled the Legislature could spend that money as it saw fit.

Not all legislators, though, believe this year's emptying of the NOVA account to rescue the budget was the right thing to do.

"I think there's been a slow eroding of the NOVA account, and this is the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back," said Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland.

Other say the Legislature's decision will have long-term impacts on trail systems throughout the state, notably in National Forests that have already watched the steep decline in their trail-maintenance budgets since the early 1990s.

"In 2010 and 2011, we might get most of the log-out done," said Foss.