In Focus: Funds needed to support public lands

Washington has a landscape that is second to none. Our plains and grasslands support fertile farms and produce world-renowned wine. But our landscape is so much more than an environmental blessing — it’s an economic one. Public lands like Horse Heaven Hills and Badger Mountain Centennial Preserve draw people to Benton County from across the state and country.

We have to continue expanding our commitment to such wonderful community treasures, and this year our elected leaders in Olympia and Washington, D.C., can make a real impact. Here in Benton County, the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP) is poised to fund new acquisition for a park at Candy Mountain that will provide incredible outdoor access to local residents and out of town visitors. Benton County has raised $695,000 through private funding to build this new park, and I hope we can count on our Tri-Cities Olympia delegation — Sens. Sharon Brown and Mike Hewitt, Rep. Maureen Walsh and others — to match this investment by appropriating $97 million to WWRP.

On the federal level, I urge Sens. Murray and Cantwell and Rep. Newhouse to support full reauthorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF costs not a single taxpayer dime, relying instead on offshore drilling fees, and puts money back in our pockets by actually reducing land management costs.

Quite simply, these investments are a crucial part of securing our economic future. A recent report commissioned by the state Legislature showed that outdoor recreation made possible by programs like WWRP and LWCF generates nearly $1.1 billion in annual consumer expenditures in the counties that make up the Tri-Cities area. This spending supports more than 7,000 jobs in Benton County, with several thousand more in neighboring areas. Just as the state and federal governments have provided tax credits and long-term investments to the tech and aerospace industries in Washington, they should also fund our natural heritage to make sure these benefits don’t just continue into the future — they keep growing.

The WWRP is precisely the kind of program that our government should invest in. Projects are selected on a competitive basis to ensure that every public dollar is spent on only the most worthy investments. Projects have been funded in every corner of the state, including local parks, wildlife areas with public access for hunting, fishing and other recreation, trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding and numerous other successes. Getting kids and adults outside does more than boost our economy — it boosts public health, too.

Benton County has been a repeated beneficiary of the Wildlife and Recreation Program, which has invested nearly $6.5 million here since it was founded 25 years ago. It has made possible numerous landmarks, including multiple projects at Horse Heaven Hills and Amon Creek. Badger Mountain, another WWRP project, saw 200,000 visitors in 2013 alone, underscoring the immense economic and community value of this program.

The $97 million requested for WWRP is just a tiny part of a state budget that is expected to total more than $70 billion this year. This small investment today — barely a tenth of one percent of the total the Legislature is preparing to spend — will keep paying us back for years to come. It’ll pay us back in jobs, in health, and in a public space that will truly contribute to our community.