Foresters weigh in on fish barrier removal

Foresters weigh in on fish barrier removal
A split decision by the U.S. Supreme Court requires Washington state to remove thousands of fish barriers by 2030. Photo: Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington

A recent split decision by the U.S. Supreme Court calls on Washington state to remove thousands of fish barriers impeding salmon passage by 2030. Forest landowners say that to accomplish this goal, the state should heed the lessons learned from the  successful removal of thousands of fish barriers on private land.

“Our road system blocking salmon in the long run is not going to be sustainable,” Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA) Executive Director Mark Doumit said. “Make salmon recovery a big priority, along with other priorities of our system. As our population grows, this problem becomes more difficult. Over the long-term, our investment is going to pay off in the state.”

A trade association, the WFPA represents Washington’s private forest landowners who altogether own four million acres – roughly half the forestland in the state. They are also primarily responsible for the removal of over 7,000 fish barriers since 2001. Two years prior, the Forests and Fish Law was passed, mandating that private landowners remove fish barriers on streams associated with forest road crossings.

Through the Forest and Fish Law’s Road Maintenance and Abandonment Plans (RMAPs) process, the Spokane-based Inland Empire Paper Co. removed 67 fish barriers over a 15-year period, opening 38 miles of habitat.

In total, the private landowners have spent $313 million on fish barrier removal since 2001. At the same time, the state’s Family Forest Fish Passage Program (FFFPP) created in 2003 offers small forestland owners financial aid to cover the costs of fixing their fish barriers. Through that program, 283 private land owners since 2003 have successfully fixed 385 fish barriers and reconnected 910 miles of fish habitats.

“It really is a long-term investment strategy,” Doumit said. “You’re not going to snap your fingers and get this kind of infrastructure done overnight. It’s a long-term capital investment.”

There are an estimated 35,000-40,000 fish barriers located in the state on both private and public lands, but the high court order only applies to Washington state-owned land managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and Washington State Parks. Most of them fall under WSDOT’s jurisdiction, as nearly all DNR, WDFW and State Parks projects have been completed.

WSDOT already has a program for fixing the 996 barriers they’re responsible for on state and federal highways; the state estimates it will cost $120 million per year to meet the 2030 deadline. In the most recent capital budget, the state dedicated $19.7 million to 13 fish barrier projects, with an additional $300,000 in the 2018 supplemental.

Along with prioritizing work on barriers causing the most harm to salmon, Doumit said the state can also have replacement projects occur alongside infrastructure work on those roads – a strategy used by private landowners prior to a timber harvest.

“We try to do it with ongoing construction, so it would either reduce the cost or costs that were ongoing to be borne at a time of harvest,” he said. “Land owners view their road system as an integrated system and looked at where they could open up the most habitat the quickest.”

The same approach could be utilized by the state, he added. “The ones (state roads) closer to retirement because of (population) growth need to be expanded, (and) that’s where we need to place the higher emphasis this time through.”

However, he also warns that inconsistent funding by the legislature could dampen those efforts.

“Every year there needs to be work done on a systematic approach, not just ‘we’ll do some this year,’” he said.

There are also ongoing efforts to remove fish barriers not affected by the court ruling via the state Fish Barrier Removal Board; the board’s next meeting is July 17 in Olympia.

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