A setback from Olympia for wildlife and ecosystems
Conservation Northwest / May 01, 2019 / Legislation, Restoring Wildlife, WDFW
Despite some environmental gains, the state legislature failed to fully-fund Fish & Wildlife, undermining conservation programs.
By Mitch Friedman, Executive Director
The Washington State Legislature adjourned this weekend after passing budget bills in its final hours. While there’s much to celebrate, our natural heritage was dealt a funding setback that will have significant impacts this year and next.
The session was productive on climate measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including transitioning to 100% clean energy by 2045, improving building standards, and promoting solar energy and electric vehicles. The recommendations of Governor Inslee’s task force on southern resident killer whales also fared well, with measures to support orca and salmon recovery approved—from protecting shoreline habitat and boosting oil spill prevention to better regulating pollution and funding a state forum on Snake River dam removal.
We supported these and other bills as a member of the Environmental Priorities Coalition. We’re also very glad to see funding in the Capital Budget for a task force to address the unequal distribution of health risks and pollution impacts in our state. Efforts like this are essential for advancing environmental equity and justice.
Yet despite these wins, the continued underfunding of Washington’s fish and wildlife is a serious loss that can’t be ignored.
Fish & Wildlife cut again
The state’s final $52.4 billion, two-year Operating Budget includes approximately $830 million in new revenues from Washington’s booming economy and increased property and business taxes. Yet in a huge disappointment for conservation and outdoor opportunity, somehow the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) still faces underfunding, with layoffs and service reductions likely.
Critical biodiversity conservation, habitat restoration and outdoor recreation programs, already neglected at less than five percent of WDFW’s budget due to insufficient support from the state General Fund, will be cut even further.
I should explain my use of the term “cut”. The legislature actually funded WDFW at $24 million more than the previous two-year budget level. Lawmakers also earmarked additional funds for orca recovery, particularly efforts to increase their food supply through the production of Chinook salmon at hatcheries, even though habitat restoration has been shown to be more effective in the long-term.
But as you’ve heard from us for months, those previous Fish & Wildlife funding levels are an aberration and abomination, with an approximately $31 million budget shortfall since 2008. $60 million was requested this session to fill that gap and provide better services and innovative conservation efforts.
We had hoped the legislature would finally end the underfunding of WDFW given the results of a recent audit showing department spending and management compare well with other state agencies. There was also broad stakeholder support through the Budget and Policy Advisory Group (BPAG). BPAG leaders including myself advocated for at least a $45 million increase from the taxpayer-generated General Fund as well as the passage of modest fishing and hunting license fee increases, the first since 2011 and projected to generate another $15 million.
Yet to our frustration and the detriment of our state’s invaluable fish and wildlife, this year’s $24 million budget “increase” falls short of filling the funding gap, and is less than half of what’s needed for the agency to meet the demands of Washingtonians for their outdoor heritage—as I laid out in a March op-ed in the Seattle Times.
The license fee increases got tangled in controversy over the use of gillnets in commercial fisheries on the Columbia River. Deplorably, certain groups and legislators obsessed with these narrow interests held funding for the entire department hostage. Fish and wildlife across our state will suffer because of it.
Not only is WDFW’s General Fund appropriation now even less than it was in 2008, important fish and wildlife revenues from license sales and federal grants from excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear are expected to be down more than $5 million this biennium due to national trends.
UPDATE: Due to payroll increases approved by Olympia, WDFW’s 2019-20 budget deficit has grown to approximately $21 million. Learn more.
Where we go from here
The case for fully funding WDFW remains evident. Not only are Washington’s wildlife and ecosystems critical to our quality of life, they’re under increasing pressure from our burgeoning population and increasing development. WDFW is the agency primarily tasked with sustaining our heritage against these threats. And its work has a huge return on investment.
Investing in WDFW makes good economic sense, as the Washington Department of Revenue estimates that wildlife watching, hunting and fishing contributed nearly $340 million dollars to the State General Fund in the 2017-19 biennium through sales tax and business and occupation taxes. Incredibly, this revenue is three and a half times the amount of total General Fund appropriations to WDFW.
As I mentioned, one of the worst parts of this continued underfunding is that the threatened species and habitats most in need of attention will face further cuts. From sharp-tailed grouse to Canada lynx, animals identified under State Wildlife Action Plans need more resources, not less, and they don’t have time to wait for Olympia.
Washingtonians know this, including the nearly 700 people who took action through our WILD NW Action Alerts, sending more than 7,000 messages to state legislators on behalf of fish and wildlife funding. THANK YOU!
Conservation Northwest is going to continue this fight, this year and during the supplemental session in 2020. You can help by letting your legislators know of your disappointment.
Suggested comments for legislators
Dear state Senator and Representatives,
For years, our Department of Fish and Wildlife has faced a $31 million budget shortfall. $60 million was requested this session to fill that gap and also provide better services and innovative conservation programs.
Going into this session, there was broad stakeholder support for at least a $45 million increase in General Fund appropriations for WDFW as well as modest hunting and fishing license fee increases, the first since 2011.
Instead, the final two-year Operating Budget included only an additional $24 million, well short of filling the funding gap and less than half of what’s needed for the agency to meet the demands of Washingtonians for our outdoor heritage. This is very disappointing.
One of the worst parts of this continued underfunding is that the threatened species and habitats most in need of attention will face further cuts. Due to a lack of support from the General Fund, sharp-tailed grouse, Canada lynx, and other native species identified under State Wildlife Action Plans currently make up less than five perfect of WDFW’s budget. They need more resources, not less, and they don’t have time to wait for Olympia.
The case for fully funding WDFW remains evident. Not only are Washington’s wildlife and ecosystems critical to our quality of life, they’re under increasing pressure from our state’s burgeoning population and increasing development. WDFW is the agency primarily tasked with sustaining our natural heritage against these threats.
Investing in WDFW also makes good economic sense, as the Washington Department of Revenue estimates that wildlife watching, hunting and fishing contributed nearly $340 million dollars to the State General Fund in the 2017-19 biennium through related sales tax and business and occupation tax revenues.
Washington’s fish, wildlife, state wildlife areas and outdoor opportunities are important for me and my family. Please ensure that full funding for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is a priority next session.
Don’t forget you can use our simple form to send a message!