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Effort to expand Whispering Firs Bog Preserve secures Legislative support
After weeks of uncertainty, funds for an expansion of a preserve protecting Vashon's Whispering Firs Bog are now in both the House and Senate capital budgets, according to conservationists who have been following the Legislature.
Tom Dean, executive director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, said the Senate — where funding for the project had been uncertain — passed a capital budget this week that included $400,000 for the purchase, a line item included in the Senate's funding of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP). The House already approved a budget with the funding for Whispering Firs Bog in it.
Should the governor sign the capital budget, the WWRP grant will enable the land trust and the Vashon Park District to purchase 10 acres around the bog, a rare and imperiled habitat that would likely degrade over time if lands that provide a buffer were sold and developed.
"I'm so pleased," Dean said. "We've always called this the 'failure is not an option' project. It's absolutely the most rare feature on Vashon and frankly rare in Puget Sound."
The 10 acres the park district and land trust hope to purchase would bring the preserve on the north end of Vashon to nearly 19 acres, doubling its size. It would also mark a significant milestone for the land trust. Whispering Firs — a 7,000-year-old sphagnum bog that supports stunted firs and hemlocks as well as a suite of wetland-dependent plants — was the land trust’s first acquisition.
"If we can't do this, we might as well fold up our tent and go home," Dean said.
But the good news for Vashon comes at a difficult time for the much-heralded land and recreation program, started more than 20 years ago by two former governors — Republican Dan Evans and Democrat Mike Lowry — who saw it as a way to marry diverse interests and provide needed funds to put both habitat and recreation properties into protection. The program has garnered widespread support over the years, in part because of the breadth of the projects it funds — from ball fields and boat ramps to forests and wetlands. It has also been heralded for the way projects get chosen: Since WWRP's inception, an independent panel of experts ranks the proposed projects — submitted by local, state and tribal agencies; lawmakers approve the funding, but not what's included on the list.
The Senate, however, significantly cut the budget. The House weighed in at $50 million, the Senate at $36 million. What's more, the Senate proposal would take $16 million of that funding and apply it to 50 WWRP projects that didn't rank high on the panel's list but entail construction — part of an effort on the Senate's part to stimulate jobs creation. A legislative staffer said projects on the list — called Jobs for Recreation — were chosen through a formula that ranked projects based on how much it cost and the number of jobs it created; most, according to a list on the Senate website, are trail and park development projects.
Dean said the move — spearheaded by Sen. Derek Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor) — undermines the objective ranking that has been the hallmark of WWRP and will lead to projects getting cherry-picked by lawmakers intent on directing funds to their districts.
"I don't like the Senate turning around and picking up projects ranked at the bottom and funding them as this jobs proposal," Dean said. "I'd prefer they honor the ranking system."
Even so, he said, he's thrilled that Whispering Firs, ranked first in its category, survived the legislative battle over WWRP.
"I'm very excited about it. I thought the Senate was going to zero out the program," he said.