While the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is working to find solutions to an ongoing budget shortfall, they are working hard to keep forward trajectory strong with the issues that face them in Kittitas County.

WDFW Director Kelly Susewind, who was appointed to his position in June 2018 came from a 28-year career at the Washington Department of Ecology where he worked on water quality issues and has a background in civil and geological engineering. He said he was always motivated by the concept of serving the state.

“I grew up hunting and fishing,” he said. “That’s what got me into natural resource management to begin with.”

During his first year, Susewind said he has noticed quite a bit of overlap between this job and his prior one when it comes to legislative affairs but working with fish and wildlife were new to him. He said the learning curve has been challenging, but it has been made navigable with hard work by his staff.

“It’s been quite an experience,” he said. “There’s a lot more emotion involved with the issues here. We had the same kind of dichotomy and polarization at ecology, but not nearly as strong as I see it here. I think it’s because people are so passionate about the things we manage.”

Although Susewind said the department achieved some success on the legislative level in the year he’s been director, the major issue at hand is a growing budget deficit with no clear source of funding.

“We didn’t achieve all we wanted to,” he said. “There’s some bright spots. We have more general fund money coming into the agency than we have had in a long time, if ever. A lot of that was driven by killer whale recovery, so it’s new money for new tasks.

The department was successful in capital funding appropriations for the year, receiving approximately $50 million for continuing projects and approximately $50 million for new projects Susewind said some examples of the projects that will be funded include boat ramps, fish hatcheries and restoration work.

“That big investment by the legislature shows their confidence in our ability to pull that off,” he said.

The main challenge faced by the department at this point is their operating budget. Susewind said the issue has turned into a perpetual problem where the legislature gives the department a lump sum of money designed as a one-time only injection of funds. That funding lasts a year or two and then the department finds itself in the same situation, but with a larger deficit each time around. The deficit currently stands at $31 million, money Susewind said is necessary to maintain operations.

The department attempted to bridge the deficit gap through a combination of general fund usage and a 15 percent increase in fees for fishing and hunting licenses, but that proposal was knocked down by the legislature. Even if it had been improved, it would have only accounted for 25 percent of the deficit. Susewind said the department also hired an independent contractor to analyze the management structure within the department in an attempt to identify any organizational strains that may be placing stress on the budget. A budget advisory group was also formed to develop a plan for the department to move forward.

“We just kind of ran into a political buzz saw in the session,” he said. “We failed to get the fee portion through. We’re about $20 million short for the biennium.”

The lump sum of funding the department received this year is distributed over the course of the two years of the budget cycle. The majority of the funds are distributed in the first year, and Susewind said this was designed to the department can request additional funding through the supplemental budget.

“They’re expecting us to come back with another big ask to straighten this thing out,” he said.

Susewind said despite the budget struggle, users of WDFW-managed lands will see minimal if any change to agency performance and deliverables, but the issue can become more complicated if the department doesn’t receive supplemental funding next year. He said the department is evaluating ways to fix the problem, including the possibility of fee increases. The most apparent ideal solution is the shift to a yearly payout from the general fund, which would be adjusted each year for inflation.

“I think you’ll see a mix of fees and general fund going in,” he said. “It could all be general fund, especially in a supplemental year. We’re zero for three on fees, so I’m not that anxious to jump back in the box again.”

Although the majority of user groups that were asked about the potential to increase user fees were supportive of the concept, Susewind said he believes the proposal failed because it is difficult to explain to users why a fee increase is necessary in years when fishing seasons are paired down due to issues like restoring the orca population. He said those years tend to cost the department the most, and that the fees should be looked at as an investment in the foundation of creating more bountiful seasons in for future generations.

“It structurally sets us up the wrong way,” he said. “The harder it is to provide the fish, the more it should cost, but people don’t want to hear that. I as a user don’t want to hear that. It’s a hard story to tell.”

WDFW Regional Director Mike Livingston said another issue with raising funds is the fact that over six million people use department-managed lands without raising fees through fishing or hunting licenses.

“A lot of the people that are using our lands are not fishers and hunters anymore,” he said. “They’re hikers, they’re bikers, they’re birdwatchers.”

Livingston said this figure has caused an imbalance in funding, an issue the budget advisory committee has investigated, prompting the recommendation for yearly general fund appropriations. With the budget deficit looming, he said other management tasks taken on by the department within Kittitas County are strained due to the problem.

“Elk in Kittitas County is a huge issue,” he said. “We spend a ton of time managing to try and prevent elk from damaging landowners’ farms, fences and all that. Those resources are also at risk right now related to our budget needs.”

Until the department formalizes a solution to eliminate the yearly deficit, Livingston said it is important to focus on the fact that the tasks currently undertaken by the department will hold value for years to come.

“All of these land management issues cost a lot of money for us,” he said. “It takes time and effort to put advisory groups together, to listen to all those people around the table to come up with a plan that kind of strikes the balance and at the same time manages the resource so we have something left for future generations to make decisions around.”

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