After 20 years since the 1999 Forests and Fish Law was approved by the state legislature and then-Governor Gary Locke, state lawmakers may need to make changes, despite noted accomplishments through the law. Originally passed to protect salmon habitat, the law has helped various private, state, federal and tribal stakeholders coordinate on recovery efforts such as removing fish barriers on forestland.
However, a Jan. 15 work session of the House Rural Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee included testimony from panel members, former state lawmakers and forestry industry spokespersons highlighting the need to accomplish conservation objectives without undo harm to industries.
Washington Farm Forestry Association Lobbyist Heather Hansen told panel members that “we are concerned more and more forestland owners may be converted, because frankly when you take half the value of someone’s timber away, that doesn’t look good to the heirs as an investment to hold onto. When it’s gone, we see land converting and that’s not good for the industry.”
The WFFA represents 1,300 family memberships, which manage more than 150,000 acres of forestland. All told, small forest owners manage four million of Washington’s 22 million acres of forestland and are defined as someone who harvests no more than two million board feet per year.
Under the Forests and Fish Law, the state’s Forest Practices Board was directed to create rules regarding forest and fish protection policies. Through that law the Forest Practices Habitat Conservation Plan was set up to protect various fish species, more than 60,000 miles of streams and 9.3 million acres of state and private forestland.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind told lawmakers “this law has been a great step forward in restoring and protecting fish and wildlife habitat. Bottom line for us, these 20 years has been a success and should be celebrated as such.”
However, the law hasn’t come without costs. Forestland owners were required to make an inventory of their roads, identify culverts with fish barriers and then remove them. Green Diamond Public Affairs Manager Patti Case told Lens that in the first few years, that work was costing her company $1 million annually.
The law also reduces the potential timber harvests on forestland through buffer zones designed to protect fish habitat. Washington Forest Protection Association Executive Director Mark Doumit told legislators that their membership has achieved a 90 percent compliance rate on both the buffers and other new rules. Doumit served as a state representative for the 19th district from 1996-2002, then as state senator from 2002-2006.
“I think it’s a very unique set of laws that forces people to come together, that’s worth the effort,” he said.
Yet, the buffer requirements have disproportionately affected small forests owners, because their land is located lower in the watershed where the streams are larger and thus require larger buffers.
According to Hansen, small forestland owners originally supported the Forests and Fish Law, despite its likely impact to their lands, because it included mitigation programs to ensure their timber harvests remained economically viable.
But those programs are understaffed or lack the necessary funding, she said. The Forestry Riparian Easement Program through the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reimburses small forestland owners for up to 50 percent of the value of timber they can’t harvest due to buffer zones. However, the program is six years behind in funding, according to Hansen.
There is also DNR’s Small Forest Landowner Office that provides small forestland owners with technical and financial assistance landowners often lack, but Hansen said a lack of funding means forestland owners might have to wait months for help.
In agreement was Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who told panel members that “I think we are absolutely failing our small land forest landowners as to stepping up to the pledges” made as part of the law. “They have this most significant challenge in continuing to provide for their families. It is time for us to step up and actually say we’re going to put our money where we put our commitment.”
A draft bill is currently in the works that intends to look at current regulations. Two separate pieces of legislation, Senate Bill 5330 (SB 5330) and House Bill 1273 (HB 1273), have already been introduced but not scheduled for public hearings.