In Washington state, funneling money toward government and nonprofit programs that protect and restore wildlife habitat, expand recreation opportunities and help land users preserve working farms and forests rests with the Recreation and Conservation Office, a small but influential division of state government that reviews and funds grant requests while keeping tabs on the groups it supports.
The office houses the state’s salmon recovery office, as well as boards overseeing recreation and conservation funding, invasive species mitigation and a group that supervises state land acquisition. But for the first time in more than a decade — in the shadow of a booming human population, dwindling salmon and orcas, overcrowded state parks and efforts to improve equity in outdoor spaces — the RCO is getting new leadership.
Incoming RCO Director Megan Duffy, who replaces a retiring Kaleen Cottingham, is no stranger to the RCO: It’s where she started her career in state government as an executive coordinator in the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office in 2008. She went on to become department supervisor at the Washington Department of Natural Resources. She just finished serving as the deputy director of the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board. “I consider myself incredibly fortunate to make the mission of this agency happen: protecting the places that we know are important, creating spaces for people to recreate in, and supporting the recovery of salmon, [where] we have a lot of work to do there," Duffy says.
“[It’s] really about safeguarding what it is we have here in Washington, and growing the things that make it a really special place.”
Crosscut spoke with Duffy to learn more about the challenges, opportunities and priorities she’ll tackle when she takes the office on May 1.
What would happen if the RCO didn’t exist?
We can very efficiently give grants funneled from federal and state sources to the grantees — it's the sole purpose of the agency. So we have the ability to create the systems to pick the best projects and make sure the money is spent wisely. And I think that if the agency didn't exist, right, that funding would be more dispersed, and we would lose the efficiency and context for it. We work closely with other natural resource partners and agencies to make sure they're meeting their objectives: We can see across the landscape, so to speak, and then figure out how to make the most of that money.
How has your past work affected the way you see the need for grant funding in conserving and improving natural spaces?
At DNR, I had the opportunity to see firsthand the value and importance of working lands: places that generate revenue, but that are also places where people like to recreate, that serve ecosystem service purposes, that provide opportunities for both mental and physical health. I think of myself when I say that. And sometimes, the working land and the protection pieces can conflict. But, you can do it all. And I think what I got to see is where that sweet spot is, the delicate balance that we are trying to achieve between all of those things.
An important piece of it was knowing that landowners require support and sometimes incentives to improve and protect their land, whether for fish or other wildlife. And the RCO really has some great opportunities for providing those incentives and that support through grant funding.
For example, I think of the program that the agency runs in partnership with DNR and WDFW—the Family Forests and Fish Passage Program—that provide grants for cleaning up some of the blockages we have on small private forests. There's some projects landowners may not have been able to afford to do on their own, like removing an existing culvert or obstacle, and then designing, purchasing and putting in the replacement for that, whether it's a bridge or a much bigger culvert. But if we have the funding sources available to help folks get that stuff done, then they are definitely more willing to do it.
Does RCO have enough funding to meet demand?
There are always more projects than the agency actually has funding for. Percentage-wise, we are overall generally able to fund about half of the projects that come in. Salmon recovery is a bigger gap, and probably the area where there is the biggest need. Right now, we're only funding about 22% of what the Salmon Recovery Plan estimates is needed for projects, which isn't enough to get us away from a listing under the Endangered Species Act. So we're going to have to continue to make our case strongly to the state Legislature, to Congress, and to work with partners—maybe find new partners that we can potentially bring in that we haven't. So I would say, no, we don't.
And the need is so great. We have additional challenges on top of that, with climate change, warmer ocean temperatures, droughts, reduced streamflow and warmer water in the streams. ... There's a lot of work to get done.
What role does climate change play in funding strategies for habitat and recreation area improvement?
The agency has been looking at how climate impacts our programs, and they have been asking grant recipients to consider that in their designs. So, shorelines might be treated differently, or maybe how you design and place parks and trails changes. We also know that many of our projects have the potential to store carbon in trees where there are protected forested lands, which is an opportunity for grant recipients maybe to stretch their investments. If you can sell carbon credits, you could then turn around and use that money to potentially maintain the land.
And we also know that the projects in general make communities more resilient, right? The more you're protecting the land base, and/or putting restoration projects in place that maybe allow for more movement of a river within the floodplain, that means downstream communities are safer. So, there are lots of different things that projects can do that can impact and support climate change, both mitigation and resilience.
Over the past year, people's relationships with the outdoors have changed, in terms of utilizing it for recreation, health, community and safety. And also there's a broader awareness of the need to protect and manage wild and public spaces. What has the pandemic taught us about the types of facilities we need to fund?
The pandemic accelerated the pressure that we anticipate coming with an increasing population.
While more people have been getting outside, which is great, they have crowded close-in recreation areas. We need to make sure that we have the facilities, spaces, parking lots and trailheads for the number of people who are going there, as well as the number of people we anticipate moving into the state.
We have to pay attention to those places close to where people live, and think about providing amenities for those people who aren't necessarily experienced outdoor recreationalists—which could be more education programs, more kiosks and signs, more rangers, more places developed within communities.
And then we need ways to get people to trailheads—either to get them there to begin with, or in different ways, so that there are fewer vehicles at the trailhead, or whatever that might look like.
How can we fund these kinds of conservation and recreation programs fast enough to keep up with that development and population increase?
It’s hard competing against all the other demands on taxpayer dollars. And what we have to do is show how much investing in our outdoor spaces gives us in terms of jobs, economic stimulus, well-being in our community, even increased academic achievement for students.
On the salmon side of the house, we know we're losing habitat faster than we can restore it. So we need more funding for restoration, for acquisition of those existing high functioning riparian areas and, frankly, we need to look at our regulation and planning efforts around recovery, right, for other important species as well. What are we doing? What can we do better? So all of those things contribute to addressing those challenges and competing interests.
On the topic of development and density: What is the geographic breakdown in terms of the density of the places where these grant funds go? How does the state prioritize funding?
I think that the money is actually distributed fairly equitably across the state. That's one of the things we look at. And you can make some generalizations. For recreation grants, we usually require the projects be developed near population centers so that people can actually get to them. For salmon grants, it's based on salmon needs, such as the number of species listed, the habitat. And for conservation grants, it's the larger landscapes.
I think that one of the biggest issues is the inability of some of those smaller cities and counties to compete for the grants. So if you want recreation close to those places, some of them don't have the staff to write grant applications or do the planning that’s required for parks or ball fields. We need to figure out if there's a way you can help those jurisdictions with those kinds of issues.
How is RCO helping outdoor spaces and healthy environments become truly accessible to everyone?
The agency has definitely taken some really solid first steps in doing that. Some of the grant programs have made it a little bit easier for disadvantaged communities to apply for grants. So usually, when the agency gets a grant, it requires a grant recipient to provide some match. Sometimes it can be money, donations, labor, etc. A couple years ago, the agency tiered the match requirements, lowering the match some recipients have to have, based on census data: If you were below the median household income, you didn't have to bring as much match to the table, which made it much more palatable for some communities to get grants and to think about even applying for grants.
The agency also introduced a grant program focused on getting disadvantaged kids and youth outside, the No Child Left Inside grant. We definitely need to do more, and we're going to be looking at that over the coming year.
The agency requested an equity review across all of our grant programs and how we go about doing them. What are the challenges? What are the gaps? How might we fix those things, and in a more effective way address underserved communities?
The Senate, House and governor’s budget I believe all have some version of that in the budget. So we're pretty confident that something will come out of this biennial budget that will allow us to do it.
With all of this in mind, what are your biggest short-term and long-term goals for the agency?
Climate change and equity — those are the two big things that I think will shape how this agency evolves over the next five to 10 years. And I don’t know what that looks like: a new grant program? Changes to criteria in existing grant programs? But those to me are things we want to focus on. In the short term, we will be getting started on those things.
And [my predecessor] Kaleen [Cottingham] has done a phenomenal job here. RCO has already started some of that work, so it will be nothing that I take credit for. But it's definitely a place where I want to really focus and emphasize what we're doing in concert with direction from the board.
Speaking of the boards: They are fairly white. What strategies can Washington use to better reflect the diversity of the state?
It's been a big concern for the agency and the governor's office. Currently, there are three tribal members and one Japanese American member on a couple of the boards. But we are working closely with the governor's office to make sure we have diversity in all aspects—age, race, gender, geography—and we currently have two openings on the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. So we're hoping we can see some more change there.
We need people who are active in our subject areas. And if we know those folks, we might give them a little nudge or encourage them to apply. Sometimes people don't think about serving on a board. And we just have to ask. We need to do some more via social media, website and media releases, and really focus on where that information is being distributed, and what kind of awareness people have of them.
For people who are interested in getting conservation or recreation projects funded, what are the kinds of things that would make their proposals more attractive?
It all depends on the project they want to do, whether it's conservation or recreation, and then each grant program has different priorities and different criteria. But we do have a state comprehensive outdoor recreation and conservation plan, which has overarching goals: sustaining and growing the legacy of parks, trails and conservation lands; improving their equity; meeting the need for culturally relevant parks and trails; and asserting recreation and conservation as a vital public service.
So we need to look at it as infrastructure, right? Not in the traditional sense, but in the sense of supporting communities, economies and health; maybe reducing health care costs over time; and helping to address climate change. So there are a lot of things that we should be emphasizing and continuously bringing to the forefront.
What is your hope for how people see the work of your office?
It's not a super well-known office, and it doesn't necessarily get all of the attention that I personally believe it should. And I think an important goal for us would be to be out there more, and more visually. There are two places in town that I frequent, one place on a daily basis, one probably on a weekly basis. One place is on the water where I go out on my paddleboard, the other is a community park here in town (the LBA, in Olympia).
I have seen, particularly over the pandemic, a lot more kids back there with parents, a lot more people mountain biking, more people running back there. And that would not have been an opportunity that serves this whole community were it not for the funding that theLegislature provided, that partners with vision saw and advocated for, and that the grant process here at RCO provided funding for. So it's just near and dear to my heart.
It has the little Recreation and Conservation Funding Board plaque [at the start of a trail, and at a parking lot entrance]. I pay attention to it because I'm looking for it. But I want people to understand and see how public dollars are so wisely invested in things that are there for them to enjoy, to use for their health, to protect their resources. I think having that out there more in the world would hopefully have people just think about it more.