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WSU Extension budget being pulled by its roots?

Master Gardeners Peg Tillery and John Mikesell make their way across a bridge in Poulsbo
Master Gardeners Peg Tillery and John Mikesell make their way across a bridge in Poulsbo's Fish Park Wednesday with a variety of native plants to help secure a shoreline. The Master Gardener program is part of the WSU Extension office.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

POULSBO — Local gardening and high school programs aren’t digging how the state’s money problems are hitting home. Facing a projected $8 billion deficit, state legislators have tough choices to make — ones with the potential to mean serious funding cuts for public service programs.

Washington State University has responded to legislature requests with budget reduction scenarios of 12 to 18 percent. Those cuts would be made to the university’s public service sector, much of which is its WSU Extension.

WSU Extension is a federally authorized program meant to offer university-level research and education to all citizens. More than 800 Kitsap County volunteers devote hours to area programs run through the Extension, including 4-H, clothing and textile education, community and economic development, food safety, forest stewardship and horticulture.

Kitsap County Extension Director Arno Bergstrom said his office, and all extension programs state-wide, are in a holding pattern.

“Right now we’re kind of in a wait-and-see mode,” said Bergstrom.

Worst case scenario, he said, would be a 75 percent cut to Extension funding.

“It’s been suggested if a scenario like that were to play out that we might see the closure of county extension offices, we might see the closure of research and extension centers,” he explained. But, noting all posits are still hypothetical, he said “the more likely outcome would be that certain programs would be targeted for cuts.”

In an e-mail, Kitsap Extension 4-H Youth Development Educator Kelly Fisk noted program reductions of anywhere from 49 to 75 percent would leave Washington “as the only state in the union without a viable way to engage with local communities to improve economic conditions, quality of life and environmental health.”

4-H, she specified, could see staff positions cut or altogether eliminated, projects and programs reduced, training decreased and recruitment efforts ended.

Currently, Kitsap has 67 4-H clubs with more than 632 members. More than 212 adults work with youth aged 5-19 to help them “learn by doing,” according to the Kitsap County Extension 4-H Web site.

Port Orchard 4-H horse leader Susan Krawiecki said the cuts could have a drastic effect.

“4-H isn’t cows and horses and pigs. The pro gram has evolved so much,” Krawiecki said, noting her daughter, in the program six years, has been giving public presentations since the age of 10.

Krawiecki said her group of 15 kids works to give back to the community, raising money and hosting drives for area food banks.

“This is where people keep saying we want our children off the streets, out of the malls, not pregnant or drinking,” she said. “To take our program away, it’s not right.”

Wednesday morning Horticulture and Shoreline Educator Peg Tillery, while pulling on a pair of green gardening gloves beneath a melody of bird song in Poulsbo’s Fish Park, expressed her hope Extension funding isn’t severely axed. Tillery and other Master Gardeners met to plant Hawthorne and Tall Oregon Grape plants near the banks of one of the park’s creeks.

“We’re at a time where people need to learn to grow their own food,” Tillery noted, citing recent widespread economic and food safety issues. “We really can’t afford to be cut drastically. People are coming to us daily wanting to know how to grow their own food.”

In the Master Gardener program, online training could serve as an efficient and money-saving alternative to face-to-face training, she said. Kitsap boasts 260 active master gardeners, each of whom donate at least 25 volunteer hours a year. Many are also involved in native plant and shoreline stewardship or the beach naturalist program. Overall, the Kitsap Extension horticulture program has 320 volunteers.

“Our feeling is that there’s transparency in this whole topic,” Bergstrom said. “No programs specifically have been identified for cuts, but it’s anyone’s guess what it could be. There’s been a lot of focus on 4-H as a possible one, and that’s really unfair. I would say it’s unfounded.”

Whatever the funding reductions may be, it’s clear change is on the way. But Kitsap isn’t alone: Bergstrom said each county is facing the same unknown future. WSU leaders have said they’ll know more in early to mid-April.

“These aren’t just episodic volunteers, they are well trained, they are an extension of the professional program,” Bergstrom said. “They represent a huge resource, so it’s not just the people on the payroll. ... The idea is, if we were to reduce the number of volunteers, it wouldn’t reduce the demand for the information and education programs that we do.”

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