Washington’s growing population needs more recreational opportunities, even if that means investing less for habitat preservation.

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THE Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program was developed 25 years ago through legislation requested by then-Gov. Booth Gardner. The program was created to invest equally in recreation and habitat preservation.

What’s happened in the quarter-century since the program was created?

The state has appropriated more than $600 million for the program, with roughly half going to recreation and half to habitat lands. The money is allocated in the state’s capital budget, which is separate from the operating budget that pays for day-to-day state services and programs.

However, state appropriations for acquisition and restoration of habitat lands — beyond what’s been appropriated for the wildlife and recreation program — have skyrocketed, to more than $750 million in the past 16 years for habitat improvements. During that same time period, grants for recreation have been less than 30 percent of our habitat investments.

I’ve watched this declining trend of recreation investments during my 20 years as a state lawmaker. This year, as the state Senate’s lead capital budget writer, I worked with a bipartisan group of senators to catch up on our recreation needs.

We proposed a temporary delay in using the program to acquire new habitat lands in favor of focusing on the many local parks and trail projects that would otherwise go unfunded. We also proposed a $10 million investment in youth athletic fields. We all know the importance of getting kids, youths and families outside to play. That goal becomes easier when there are ample local parks, trails and athletic fields. The wildlife and recreation portion of the Senate’s capital budget would develop more than 80 local parks and trails, touching every part of our state.

This recreation-friendly approach has been criticized for violating the objectivity and scientific analysis that is one of the hallmarks of the wildlife and recreation program. That might be true if you believe that the allocation of the program’s funding to the different categories of projects is objective and based in science. It is not.

The committees that review and rank projects within categories do a great job of prioritizing the most worthy projects. However, the categories themselves — which are set in statute — are based on recommendations from various interest groups from 10 years ago. In those same 10 years, about 700,000 people have moved to our state. The investments in recreation have continued to decline compared to the investments in habitat. Our job as legislators is to respond to the changing needs of our citizens, and we believe the pressing need for residents is access to recreation.

To this end, we and our colleagues have funded an impressive list of new public-recreation assets. Our budget would fully fund those 80 local parks and trails and an additional 117 local recreational projects. And we look forward to a robust discussion during the next legislative session on more permanent improvements to the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program.