Money does grow on trees, and on trails and park spaces, say business leaders

For some, it is difficult to quantify exactly what is gained by public and private investments in things like parks, strands of forest, trails, wetlands - keeping our views green and our environment healthy.

For some, it is difficult to quantify exactly what is gained by public and private investments in things like parks, strands of forest, trails, wetlands – keeping our views green and our environment healthy.

In times of recession like these, when state, county and city governments are cutting funding to essential services like schools, health care, transportation and police, it can be difficult to mount an argument that we should spend millions on wildlife habitats and protecting lands from development.

In many ways Issaquah and Sammamish, and the broader state of Washington, are real and functioning examples of the connection between what’s good for the environment and what is good for the economy. In Sammamish, quiet trails through the woods and native wildlife have made the Plateau one of the most sought after real estate markets in the state, and singlehandedly kept a local government afloat. In Issaquah, the preservation and repair of salmon habitats drives the city’s sizable tourism market. An abundance of parks and a proximity to the famous Issaquah Alps has made Issaquah an in-demand location for Seattle-based professionals, who in recent years have flocked to the Highlands and Talus. They come for the lifestyle, first and foremost.

It was at this crossroads of the natural and the fiscal the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition (WWRC) gathered a diverse cross-section of Washington politics and industry in downtown Seattle on Tuesday morning to assess what cuts to a recreation and wildlife conservation grant program would do to the state’s economic future.

Since its foundation in 1990 by former political rivals and Washington governors Dan Evans and Mike Lowry, the WWRC has provided more than $618 million for more than 1,000 projects across the state. This includes $1 million to allow the City of Issaquah to purchase the Tolle Anderson property in 2009 and turn it into public park space, $500,000 for a multi-purpose sports field in the Issaquah Highlands, and more than $1 million for waterways restoration in Squak Valley and along Issaquah Creek. Without these grants, it is certain Issaquah would look very different today.

In 2010, the WWRC again hopes to support the development of trails and park space in Issaquah and neighboring cities, with at least four major projects on the drawing board, including new trails along Lake Sammamish and on Cougar Mountain.

These plans have been put on hold, however, with news recently that Governor Christine Gregoire’s state government may have to pull the purse strings closed on projects like these across the state. Times are tight, opponents say, and while environmental conservation is an admirable goal it is a luxury item, and expendable.

A point that supporters of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation grant program (WWRP) are quick to make is that money for these community projects comes from the state’s capital budget, not the operating budget, and so does not compete with funding for teachers and human services.

Another point they are keen to highlight is that conserving parks, waterways and recreation opportunities in Washington does not compete with economic goals, but compliments them.

Successful businesspeople like REI Inc. CEO Sally Jewell, a Renton High School graduate and former oil company engineer and banking executive, are well aware of the fertile business opportunities that grow from soil, but not pavement. She was one-third of a panel of executives at the Westin Hotel on Tuesday morning which, in any other setting, may have made strange bed fellows. Alongside Jewell sat Scott Armstrong, president and CEO of Group Health Cooperative, and President of the Washington Association of Realtors, Bill Riley.

While these three prominent Washington businesspeople may not have a lot in common otherwise, they all agree that WWRP conservation grants make good economic sense for the state. The purpose of Tuesday’s breakfast was to not only raise money to continue WWRC land acquisition and funding of projects, but to urge the state government to take a broader look at what is at stake.

“I realized early on that talking ‘green,’ as in the environment, didn’t always work well, but talking ‘green,’ as in money, certainly did,” Jewell said, who through her role as the immediate Past President of the Mountains to Sound Greenway and involvement in conservation and recreation promotions has done as much to spread the idea of Washington as an outdoor destination than almost any other individual. “For example, our state is the one that retains more of its college graduates than any other. That’s because of the quality life we have here.”

This concept of lifestyle as employment incentive is one that companies like Microsoft and Boeing have long exploited. With highly sought-after engineers and technical experts the subject of headhunting and wage negotiations between top-flight companies around the world, recruiters are realizing that a nearby mountain bike park or wilderness trail, or a home close to parks and ballfields, is often a priceless incentive.

For businessmen like Bill Riley, whose job is to sell a lifestyle as much as it is to sell a building, the government has a responsibility to invest in wilderness and recreation, as a basic need but also as a key driver of our economic recovery.

Sometimes an enemy of open space conservation in the past, the development and real estate industries are now promoting conservation as a way to value-add. As we have seen in the Issaquah Highlands, the ability to walk to a park is now a compelling consideration for buyers and a powerful marketing tool.

“Is this a luxury? The realtors don’t think that,” Riley told the audience of hundreds. “This is the same as investing in basic infrastructure such as stormwater and roads.”

Riley said that Realtor studies had shown buyers would pay more for a home close to a park. He also said Realtor polls gave elected officials a political ‘out’ when considering tax increases in the name of recreation.

“Our polling shows homeowners feel it would be okay to put a little bit more on their tax bill as long as it goes to public parks and open spaces,” he said. “The key phrase there being ‘a little bit.'”

Group Health’s Scott Armstrong told the audience, which included Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger and representatives from Issaquah Highlands master developer Port Blakely, that open spaces and parks were vital components in the battle to turn around the nation’s growing obesity problem and the trend toward a sedentary lifestyle, which is costing the health care system billions of dollars a year. In this way, an investment in a trail or park space is as much a medical resource as it is a place for recreation.

“Better health is about changing the culture and lifestyle of communities,” Armstrong said. “The availability of green spaces has a strong connection to lower obesity rates and better outcomes for chronic illnesses. Better health care is about new technology, active patients who are invested in their health, but also about community resources, and spaces outdoors to engage in healthy lifestyles. We are here because we are committed to better health, and we know that better health is in part dependent on the investments that this organization makes.”

Armstrong joined Jewell and Riley in urging the state to see the long-term economic wisdom of conservation projects.

“That is what capital investment is for; to make investments in infrastructure,” he said.

“The wherewithal to make long-term investments in public resources now is what could distinguish a great state from just one that makes it through this time,” Jewell added.

She said as the population of our cities continued to grow, voters were growing more conscious of the importance of park space and resources to the lifestyle they want for themselves and their families, and future generations.

“A few weekends ago, riding through Issaquah and Sammamish, it was amazing to see the number of people, families, outside and using parks and recreation spaces,” she said. “That wasn’t the case, even five years ago.”

The importance of the WWRP grants to the future of Washington has formed an unusual partnership, the ‘green’ with ‘the green,’ tree huggers with steel-eyed executives and number crunchers, traditional opponents in the debate over land uses.

“We’ve got the realtors talking with the Sierra Club. We’ve got the Cascade Bicycle Club talking with the American Farmland Trust,” said Mike Lowry. “That’s the real strength of this organization – people of such disparate backgrounds working together toward a common goal.”

Whether it is one shared by the Gregoire and her budget planners remains to be seen.