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Behind the Scenes: Washington's Best-Kept Secret for Recreation Funding

Posted by Christina Hickman at Nov 26, 2019 01:24 PM |

Celebrating its 30th year, the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition is a behind-the-scenes powerhouse for the interests of outdoor recreation, including the hiking community.

WTA loves helping people get outside — whether that's hiking, backpacking, enjoying a local park or doing trail work. To make trails possible and provide access to the outdoors spaces we all love, a lot is happening behind the scenes. Some of the most important work done in the background is finding and securing committed funding sources. Luckily, Washington has something that most other states don’t — a premier conservation and recreation grant program known as the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP).

“This program is the best kept secret of conservation and recreation funding sources and grants in Washington,” said Betsy Robblee, outreach and policy manager for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition (WWRC). “The fact that we have it is something that we can be very proud of as Washingtonians.”

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Beautiful views abound on the Walt Bailey Trail. WTA partnered with the Department of Natural Resources to restore the trail using WWRP grant money. Photo by trip reporter dacb.

WWRC & WWRP — WHAT ARE THEY AND WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

WTA has long been a supportive partner in WWRC’s work. In fact, WTA was a founding board member and still sits on its board today. The Coalition, which is celebrating its 30th year, is a behind-the-scenes powerhouse for the interests of outdoor recreation, including the hiking community.

Back in the late 1980s, Washington experienced a population boom. After seeing development encroach on some of the state’s most precious lands, a diverse coalition of interests — ranging from hunters and anglers, to businesses, realtors and labor unions to traditional recreationalists like hikers, bikers, and equestrians and environmentalists and conservationists — came together in support of Washington’s lands. This non-profit organization, WWRC, convinced the state legislature to create the WWRP grant program in 1989. Due to strong bipartisan support, what the Coalition originally thought to be a one-time bond initiative to buy and conserve a swath of lands became an essential funding source for the state. 

The Coalition’s main functions are to advocate for WWRP in Olympia, to connect communities to the program and to provide education about it. WWRC also does advocacy work around the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), promoting federal investments in Washington’s natural heritage and outdoor recreation economy. WTA has partnered with the Coalition and others to advance the efforts for this landmark funding source.

HOW PROJECTS GET FUNDED

The Washington State Recreation & Conservation Office (RCO) is the government agency responsible for administering WWRP grants. RCO solicits and collects project applications in even-numbered years (in conjunction with the state’s budget cycle). Applications are judged by an independent advisory committee made up of volunteers from around the state. This citizen review process ensures that the funding process remains fair, and separate from the special interests of lawmakers. The projects are scored and ranked by a point system based on a number of criteria. (The scoring criteria include public need, site suitability and project design, sustainability and environmental stewardship, diversity of and compatibility of recreation uses, linkage between trails and communities, immediacy of threat, scenic values, enhancement of wildlife habitat, cost efficiencies, outcome-focused performance measures, public benefit and project support and population proximity.) This process is completed during the summer of even-numbered years.

Projects fall into one of 12 categories, including trails. Those 12 categories fall into three main buckets (outdoor recreation, farm and forest, and habitat conservation). The outdoor recreation and habitat conservation buckets each receive 45% of total WWRP grant money.  Farm and forest lands gets the remaining 10%.

The projects are ranked based on the criteria. Then, the highest ranked project on list is funded first, then the second, and so on, until the money runs out. This year, only a little more than a third of the project applications that were submitted received funding.

“That’s why it’s so important to get robust funding for the WWRP: the more funding is allocated by the Legislature, the more projects get funded,” Betsy Robblee of WWRC said.  

During the fall of even-numbered years, RCO’s Funding Board approves the WWRP project list and sends it to the governor and the Legislature. The governor approves the projects and makes a capital budget request to the Legislature. During the odd-numbered year’s legislative session, the Legislature sets the funding level for WWRP. (WWRP is funded in the Capital Construction Budget.) After being approved by the RCFB, funding starts going out to successful projects in the summer of odd-numbered years.

As a nonprofit, WWRC does not receive any of the public funding it advocates for — its work is funded by individuals, companies and nonprofit partners.

HOW WE WORK TOGETHER

“From lobbying in Olympia to constructing and stewarding WWRP-funded trails, WTA is a critical partner to the Coalition and our mission to protect Washington’s great outdoors,” said Christine Mahler, executive director for WWRC.

One of the most crucial ways WTA partners with WWRC is through joint advocacy work. WTA advocates in Olympia for WWRP to be fully funded each biennium. This past year, we joined the Coalition in requesting for WWRP to be fully funded in the 2019-2021 biennium at $130 million. This request is based on factors such as demand (number of applications RCO has received), overall need for the program (population growth), inflation and funding trends. The RCFB also comes up with recommended requests. Both are submitted to the governor. While WWRP ended up receiving less than requested in 2019 ($85 million), it was still the second highest level of funding that WWRP has ever received from the Legislature.  

Based on the agenda the Coalition sets, we work with a variety of lawmakers, trail champions and capital budget decision makers to emphasize the importance and impact of proposed WWRP projects — both in lawmakers' districts and for the state as a whole.

WWRC also hosts legislator tours throughout the year, getting lawmakers out to see the benefit of WWRP projects to the community. These tours display the powerful partnerships that make these projects happen. WTA often heads out on trail to join in on these powerful examples of collaboration.

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WTA joined WWRC and partners this fall on a tour of WWRP projects in the Middle Fork Valley. Photo courtesy of WWRC.

The most visible results of WWRP funding for the WTA community is on-trail work. While nonprofits like WTA don’t receive funds directly from WWRP, we work with state and local agencies that receive the grant money to partner up and use our volunteer power to build trails.

Tim Van Beek, WTA’s field programs manager, says that one of the most important, yet often overlooked, aspects about doing trail work with WWRP funds is the collaboration it fosters between nonprofits and land managers. For example, WTA worked closely with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources to host two backcountry response team trips in 2018 and one in 2019 to work on the Walt Bailey Trail in the Morning Star NRCA. Providing maintenance and attention to lesser-used trails in the area takes pressure off of other more heavily-used trails in the area, like Gothic Basin. The Mountain Loop Highway, where Walt Bailey and Gothic Basin are both located, is a key part of our Trails Rebooted campaign as we work to upgrade our trail systems, with sustainability and growing demand in mind. 

Even when we aren’t working on the ground, WTA provides input on priority projects by engaging with the project proposals, discussing the vision with partners, analyzing them ourselves and providing letters of support.

WTA AND WWRC NEED YOUR SUPPORT

To make this important work a reality, we need support from hikers like you. One of the best ways to do that? Attend a legislative day in Olympia. While WTA’s next Hiker Rally Day isn’t until 2021, WWRC has one coming up in February

“WTA and its membership are a powerful voice, and by working in partnership with a coalition, those voices are leveraged even more,” Robblee said of the importance of attending rally days.

You can also speak up for trails all year long by signing up for our Trail Action Network and making your voice heard through online petitions and emails sent directly to your lawmakers.

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