Standoff in Legislature won’t be resolved soon
By Marcy Stamper
Money for trail maintenance and bridge construction in the national forest, grooming of snowmobile trails, and prescribed burning to restore state wildlife areas have been left hanging because the state Legislature didn’t pass a capital budget before adjourning in June.
The programs — 18 in the Methow Valley and 29 countywide — are funded by various programs through the state Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO). Some of the programs are funded by state grants, but others are supported by federal dollars that can’t be disbursed without the state’s authorization. All the grants require a match from the recipient.
“Everything is on hold because of the capital budget,” said Marguerite Austin, manager of the recreation and conservation grants section for the RCO. Not all of these projects were guaranteed funding — the RCO ranks them and the Legislature doesn’t always appropriate funding for all of them — but both houses of the Legislature included funding in their budgets for most of them.
Since Washington’s budgets cover two years, with a capital budget in place, the RCO would have started issuing contracts in July, said Austin. Even if the Legislature adopts a capital budget during its short session starting in January, the projects would be one year behind, she said.
Austin, who has been with RCO since 1988, said she doesn’t recall another time when the Legislature hadn’t passed the budget by its deadline.
Since so many of the projects are for recreational facilities, the sponsors would now be in the design and permitting phase, with an eye toward starting construction next spring or summer, said Austin.
The capital budget was a casualty of a political stand-off in the Legislature over the controversial “Hirst” court ruling by the state Supreme Court, regarding water for rural development. House Republicans refused to pass the capital budget when they didn’t get a chance to vote on a Senate bill that some believed would resolve the water issue.
Among the local projects that have been recommended for funding — but that don’t have the money — is $53,000 for a chipper and truck that would enable Methow Trails to clear woody debris that has been piled alongside its trails. Removing the debris would eliminate a fire hazard and make the trails — which already proved useful as fire breaks in recent wildfires — even more effective as a fire break, according to the application.
The Methow Valley Ranger District submitted half a dozen applications for grants for staff to perform hundreds of miles of trail work, build five trail bridges, and maintain 24 campgrounds. The ranger district also wants $78,000 for climbing rangers to educate people about environmentally and socially responsible climbing practices.
In partnership with the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, the ranger district is also seeking $190,000 for a nonmotorized 12-mile-long trail in the Chickadee trail system near Sun Mountain Lodge.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is seeking $604,000 to burn more than 1,000 acres — and thin another 600 — in the Methow Wildlife Area to improve forest health and wildfire habitat. The project, intended to treat the transition zone between the forest and shrub-steppe, is outside the department’s normal funding stream and is on hold until the budget passes, said Jamie Bass, Okanogan lands forester. Bass said she’s optimistic WDFW will get funding after the Legislature reconvenes.
Washington State Parks is expecting $54,000 to groom snowmobile trails and clear Sno-Parks throughout the county. The agency will still be able to groom without the money, but it means state parks won’t be able to allocate the funds for other uses as planned, said Jason Goldstein, winter operations manager.
Plans for recreational trails and a sports complex in the towns of Twisp and Winthrop are both stalled because funding hasn’t come through.
Other projects on RCO’s list are connected with salmon habitat and river restoration, for acquisitions and monitoring of habitat projects by the Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation.
The Methow Conservancy was listed as an alternate for two conservation easements to preserve critical habitat and an orchard.
You have to be ready when the landowner needs to be — it could be for tax purposes, or the property owner could have a change of heart or die, and then you’re dealing with heirs, said Austin.
“You can always be at risk when you’re working with a private landowner,” said Jason Paulsen, executive director of the conservancy. “One of the property owners was willing to take the property off the market so we could seek funding, but their patience may not last forever.” The conservancy is looking for other funding sources.
When the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board meets next week, the grant section is asking the board to adopt a resolution that would give project sponsors the authority to go ahead without the funding. The sponsors would be taking a risk — the Legislature may not allot any money, or they may get less than requested — but it would at least give the project sponsors the ability to start, said Austin.
That could be important in cases where an organization has a permit that requires construction to begin within a certain time frame. Some federal grants have a completion deadline in order to receive the money from a federal grant.
Some employees are actually paid through the capital budget, not the operating budget, so there could be layoffs if the grants don’t come through, said Austin.
The funding board is holding a special meeting on Sept. 19. The option for potential grant recipients to start work before they have money in hand is on the agenda, along with an overview of a preliminary strategy to address reduced administrative costs for the RCO.