Natural resources need more help in the budget

We are all citizens of Washington, but what does that really mean? What is central to our identity as a state?

When my relatives from back East visit, they talk about how green it is out here, how good it smells. They love Puget Sound and marvel at streams with huge spawning salmon swimming along. They are amazed to learn that a bald eagle flying by is routine for us and that we sometimes see herds of elk along the road.

Their states have plenty of schools, freeways, hospitals, and the like. What they noticed were special things that we in Washington sometimes take for granted — our fantastic natural areas and parks, our clean water and air, and our forests and beautiful clear-flowing rivers.

It is our natural resources — our streams, Puget Sound, the mighty Columbia River, the forests and mountains, the salmon and the animals — these are the central elements of our identity as a state. This is what “The Evergreen State” really means.

About now you may be thinking, “Yes, but so what?” Well, here’s what. The Legislature is meeting right now and, as usual, it doesn’t have all the revenue that it needs for the next biennial budget. And, according to information I read in The Olympian, most of the funds available must be allocated to mandatory spending.

And, therefore, I fear for our natural resources. In recent years as the Legislature has established budgets — spreading limited revenue to try to meet many needs — it has continually cut the budgets of our natural-resource agencies. In the 2005-07 general operating budget, the allocation to natural resources was just 2 percent; by the 2013-15 budget, that had slipped to just under 1 percent.

Natural resources, for the most part, are not private but public resources. They belong to and benefit all of us.

Who manages and protects these precious public resources, the central core of our identity? It’s public employees working in the departments of Ecology, Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources, Recreation and Conservation Office, Puget Sound Partnership and others. Their careers are devoted to ensuring, in one way or another, that we have clean water to drink, clean air to breathe, fish to catch, elk and deer to hunt, forests and open spaces to enjoy. These are the stewards of our state’s core identity.

Over the past decade we have had fewer and fewer public employees working to protect our natural resources, and that’s wrong. We cannot starve natural-resource management and expect to retain our identity as The Evergreen State.

Already there are cracks in that identity. Puget Sound and Columbia River chinook salmon, and other species, are listed on the endangered species list. Hunting and fishing opportunities are declining (just ask Fish and Wildlife about license numbers). Campers are being turned away from our state parks.

Ultimately, the Legislature must more fully fund natural-resource agencies and restore the budget cuts of the past decade. And, incidentally, this is not an issue of Eastern versus Western Washington, or rural versus urban, or one party versus another. Every legislative district contains important and valuable public natural resources; every district also has voters who enjoy hunting, fishing, and the glories of nature, and who value clean air and water. We all enjoy our Evergreen State. And, therefore, we all depend on proper natural-resource management and protection.

Of course, since there are many competing needs, including basic human and educational needs, funding natural-resource management is challenging. One approach favored in recent years is some version of “let the user pay.” But it’s not really working. How can the user pay when the user, really, is all of us? We all benefit from clean air and water, from properly managed salmon fishing, from seeing that eagle fly, or taking those relatives to that park.

No, the real solution is to RAISE TAXES! There, I’ve said it. Natural-resource management needs more funding, and to provide it, the state’s general fund needs more revenue.

You get what you’re willing to pay for. I’m willing to pay for better-funded natural-resource budgets. I bet most other Washington citizens are, too. How about you?