In the 20 years since the Forests and Fish Law was passed, Washington’s small forestland owners have struggled to handle the new regulations regarding timber harvests and buffer zones intended to protect fish habitat and water quality. Those issues were articulated at a Jan. 15 work session of the House Rural Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, and now, a new House bill seeks to determine how much those regulations have impacted the industry.
HB 1273 would set up a legislative work group to conduct a study on forestland currently managed by small forestland owners and how the 1999 state law has affected the industry. The report would be due by November.
The bipartisan bill is sponsored by Rep. Joel Kretz (R-7) and cosponsored by seven Republicans and four Democrats.
At a Jan. 23 public hearing of the House Rural Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, small forestland owners underscored the divide between what was promised 20 years ago and what’s been delivered so far.
“We’re hearing all these concerns from our members about regulations pushing them off the land,” Washington Farm Forestry Association Executive Director Elaine Oneil said at the Jan. 23 public hearing.
When the law 1999 was passed, it was understood that there would be a disproportionate impact on small forestland owners, who harvested less than two million board feet of lumber annually. To help them, the state law included mitigation programs through the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) offered technical and financial assistance. However, those programs have struggled to obtain sufficient state funding.
WFFA President Vic Musselman told legislators that small forestland owners “still have no certainty whether the impacts of the Forests and Fish Act will be or can be mitigated to the extent that (they) will continue to be economically viable.”
Small forestland owners manage between 3.2-4 million acres of forestland. The exact figure isn’t known due to insufficient research. One provision in the state law called for an industry trend analysis every four years; it would also estimate how much the law’s regulations were contributing to those trends. However, the state has never funded the analysis.
Oneil told panel members that the industry finally obtained federal funding to do an analysis in 2007, but no update has been done. However, Musselman said that the total acreage is smaller as more owners convert the land to other uses.
Testifying in favor of the bill, DNR Forest Practices Manager Joe Shramek told panel members the agency “supports the goal of the bill and other actions aimed at helping forestland owners keep their working forest as working forests.”
Oneil said an external review of the law’s impacts is appropriate because “with all due respect to the people in DNR, you can’t really ask a regulatory agency to quantify how its regulations are impacting a regulated entity. They don’t have the policy, they don’t typically have the funding.”
She added that “we’re mindful that we are stewards of the land and our efforts impact fish and wildfire and water quality. But we also, like the rest of the world, have to deal with the three-legged stool of economic, social and environmental criteria.”
An analysis “could ultimately lead to enough help, so that the small forestland owner community in Washington can say ‘It is cool to be a tree farmer,’” Musselman said.
No further action is scheduled for HB 1273.