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What conservationists want to see in upcoming budget proposals

As budget talks kick into gear at the Legislature, conservationists and environmental advocates more broadly are working to ensure that their priorities aren’t given short shrift.

Amid several ongoing crises, advocates say wildfire planning, habitat preservation and the transition to a more sustainable economy are issues Washington cannot afford to overlook.

To hear about what key players in Washington’s broad environmental coalition would like to see prioritized in budget proposals, I spoke to Adam Maxwell, Campaigns Manager for the Washington Audubon Society, a group focused on conserving natural ecosystems and building healthy communities.

Michael Goldberg: Can you walk me through some of the conservation priorities that you’d like to see legislators include in the budget?  

Adam Maxwell: For the environmental coalition that we’re a part of, namely the Environmental Priorities Coalition, which is a group of about 20 statewide environmental organizations, we’re focused on a few things.

We want to make sure that we’re safeguarding the Operating Budget for natural resources. Historically, it’s a pretty small percentage of the amount of money our state spends on the Operating Budget. It fluctuates around two percent, but those programs provide immense benefit. The Department of Fish & Wildlife, The Department of Natural Resources, Ecology – these are programs that ensure state projects have clean water components and that there are less toxic chemicals in our water, land and air.

After the last recession, many of those programs faced deep cuts. Unlike an area like education, where McCleary places more of an obligation on the state to spend, natural resource spending is an area where legislators look to make cuts when times are tight. 

The other side of things is the Capital Budget, about 67% of it is financed with state-issued bonds. Much like capital investments in your home, you sometimes finance them through debt obligations because you’re making longer term investments in infrastructure. A big part of that infrastructure is our natural resources, our habitat, our recreation areas. That’s something Washington has done a really good job at investing in. About 27 to 40 percent of the Capital Budget historically goes towards projects with a high return on investment in terms of environmental benefit, job creation, public health and the quality of life we have here in Washington. 

Additionally, if we are going to raise revenue, we at Audubon would like for that revenue to be fair and equitable. We have pretty regressive tax code in Washington State, so it’s important that if we are going to raise new revenue to address any potential shortfalls, that we don’t do it on the backs of those who can least afford it.” 

MG: You touched on some of the historical context for conservation and natural resource spending in Washington. Can you say more about the budgetary history in this space, particularly since the Great Recession?

AM: It’s always helpful to think about it in terms of the Operating Budget as one thing and the Capital Budget as another. In terms of the Operating Budget, after the last recession the Department of Fish and Wildlife especially, but also Ecology and some other programs, suffered from cuts. 

Once we were out of the recession, the Legislature continued to pass laws that required the agencies to continue to grow their portfolio. It developed a real structural deficit. Between the things they were being asked to do and the amount of money that was being appropriated to them, and the declining revenues from the sale of hunting and fish licenses, a big structural deficit had been created that took about 2-3 legislative sessions to fix. Last year the Legislature did address that structural deficit and funded DFW’s increased work. We were happy to close the gap and that’s why we’re closely monitoring the budget for that agency.

I should also mention that there is an emergency need related to post-fire sagebrush recovery that DFW is seeking a budget proviso to fund. On the Capital Budget side, our state has some fantastic grant programs that are run through the Recreation and Conservation Office. One of those is the Washington Wildlife and Recreation program, which funds parks, trails, habitats and farmland preservation. 

As the state economy was doing well over the past few years, legislators have felt comfortable putting bonded-revenue into long term investments like that. The state has similar programs for salmon recovery that have not been funded at a rate that has kept up with the need for recovery in the Puget Sound. So we’re calling on the Legislature to do as much as they can on the Capital Budget side to fund those grant programs and help restore habitats.”

MG: Based on a stated commitment to climate resilience and environmental justice, updating the Growth Management Act (HB 1099, and several additional bills) is another priority for the Audubon. For an organization focused on natural ecosystems and conservation, can you say more about how environmental justice fits into the agenda?

AM: The environment is for us all. Historically, the environmental movement has not really heard the voices of poorer Black and Brown people. The voices of the communities have not been centered in conversations about how to address environmental problems. That has led to the burdens of environmental degradation falling harder on those communities and the benefits of environmental restoration being disproportionately enjoyed by whiter, wealthier communities.

Maybe ten years ago, a lot of conservation organizations would have viewed that as a separate issue. At Audubon Washington, we don’t view it as a separate issue. As we pass policies and plan for a changing climate, we need to make sure that those communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the fossil fuel economy are prioritized.” 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

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