By Hilary Franz
We are fortunate to live and play in one of the world’s premier outdoor recreation destinations. But these wonderful natural spaces also imbue us with key responsibilities. Namely, to ensure every resident has access to high-quality outdoor recreation and our forests and ecosystems remain healthy and able to meet growing demand. And the demand is growing.
More people than ever are taking advantage of outdoor recreation opportunities, and when they do they spend money in our rural communities. We’re seeing that trend across the country.
In Washington, outdoor recreation provides 200,000 jobs and generates $26 billion in consumer spending – ranking us fifth in the nation for recreation spending.
As demand grows – and as recreation tourism continues to be crucial to so many of Washington’s communities – it is our responsibility to ensure recreation experiences are first-rate, and that our forests and landscapes are equipped to handle the demand.
The agency I lead, the Department of Natural Resources, manages more than 160 recreation sites and 1,200 miles of trail across 3.6 million acres of state-managed forests and natural areas. Visit the Snoqualmie Corridor on any given weekend and you will see how popular DNR-managed lands are to Washington natives, transplants and visitors alike. The income from these visitors flows into the small communities at the perimeter of our public lands where people stop for gas, supplies, gear rentals and lodging.
Unfortunately, funding for our recreation programs is not sufficient to meet critical needs. And this lack of funding has impacts across our state.
Maintenance backlogs have prevented the development of new recreation areas and contributed to the closure of more than 30 DNR recreation sites since 2008.
In addition to recreation on more than 2 million acres of our working forests, DNR provides outdoor recreation within 94 conservation areas we manage. Facing budget cuts, DNR’s conservation areas staff has been reduced 30 percent since 2007. We have just 14 people maintaining these 94 precious sites across our state.
A lack of enforcement officers also limits our ability to quickly respond to incidents and address conflicting uses on our sites. DNR only has 12 law enforcement officers to patrol nearly six million acres of land.
If we are unable to keep up with increasing demand, if recreation begins to decline, then the communities that rely on our recreation economy will suffer.
That is why I’m asking the state Legislature for $30 million to enhance recreation, address critical maintenance backlogs, and support our rural communities. This investment will allow DNR to reopen closed sites, improve existing sites, increase recreation opportunity, and hire additional enforcement personnel.
It will create new recreation opportunities by funding more than 100 projects across the state. Projects like mountain bike trail systems near Colville and Spokane, campground development in the Ahtanum near Yakima, and rainforest campground and trail upgrades near Forks.
We want to continue to improve our most popular sites with projects like non-motorized recreation in the Snoqualmie Corridor, where my team is building out 10 new miles of trail on Raging River and Tiger Mountain. More trails means a better user-experience and less wear-and tear in an area that attracts large crowds from King County. We’re also looking to connect the trails at Mitchell Hill and Tiger Mountain to the Grand Ridge Trail System so more communities have access points to these areas.
More resources also mean we will be better able to leverage the volunteers who play a vital role. Last year, volunteers poured 51,000 hours of work and care into DNR lands. The only thing that prevents this number from growing is a lack of staff to recruit and assist.
Finally, this funding makes critical investments in conserving natural lands and waterways for native species and plants. Outdoor recreation on public lands must create incredible visitor experiences while ensuring natural areas remain protected and preserved for future generations.
And when we add and improve recreation opportunities – when we address critical maintenance backlogs and create positive recreation experiences – we also expand and secure Washington’s rural economies.
So let us be bold. Let us seize this moment to boost our state’s most amazing places and rural economies by investing in the power of recreation.
Hilary Franz is the commissioner of public lands, the elected official who oversees the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.