Promises still unmet for small forestland owners

Promises still unmet for small forestland owners
SB 5330 would create a legislative work group to study and make recommendations on how to retain working forestland managed by small landowners affected by the 1999 Forests and Fish Law. Photo: Washington Farm Forestry ‏

Two decades after the state legislature passed the Forests and Fish Law to protect fish habitat, it is still unclear to what extent the regulations have negatively impacted small forestland owners. At the same time, forestry groups and state officials have highlighted the insufficient technical and financial assistance given to those landowners that was promised as part of the original bill.

Legislators are seeking to address those problems via SB 5330, which last week cleared the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks. Testimony provided at the bill’s Jan. 31 public hearing reiterated the difficulties small forestland owners have faced since 1999, as well as at the Jan. 23 public hearing for its companion legislation, HB 1273.

“It’s not a very complicated bill,” Sponsor Sen. John Braun (R-20) told committee members. “It simply states that ‘it’s been 20 years since we did Forests and Fish. Even then we knew that it would likely have a disproportionate effect on small land…owners. There were things in Forests and Fish to address those concerns. Let’s just go back and see if we were successful, or if we weren’t, what things we ought to do to make sure we have a vibrant community of small landowners throughout the state. It’s part of our culture.”

If passed, the bill would create a legislative work group to examine the impact of the 1999 law on small forestland owners, defined as those who harvest less than two million board feet annually. Altogether, they maintain 3.2-3.8 million acres of Washington’s forestland. It differs from HB 1273, which was revised before clearing the Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources Committee; the house bill would instead have the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences conduct a trends analysis. Like SB 5330’s work group, the UW’s analysis would offer recommendations on how to retain the amount of working forestland managed by small landowners.

Braun told the committee that “I’d be very open” to having the UW conduct the analysis. “I just want to get at the issue.”

Yet some of the major questions to be addressed either way seem to have already been answered, as there appears to be little debate over whether the regulations have harmed small forestland owners. During a Jan. 15 work session on Forests and Fish, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz told the House Rural Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee that the state was “absolutely failing” them.

An equally somber assessment was given by Washington Farm Forestry Association President Vic Musselman at the Jan. 31 public hearing. He told legislators many of their members fear they won’t be able to remain in the industry in the long-term due to the new regulations. The WFFA represents 1,300 family memberships.

To protect fish habitat, Forests and Fish Law created “buffer zones” around those areas in which landowners could not harvest timber. Small forestland owners were especially affected because their properties are lower in the watersheds where wider streams lead to larger buffer zones. To help ease some of the regulatory burden, the state created the Small Forest Landowner Office under the state Department of Natural Resources to provide critical technical and financial assistance for property owners. However, the office is currently understaffed due to insufficient funding and is thus unable to meet demand.

The state also created the Forestry Riparian Easement Program to reimburse those land owners for up to 50 percent of the value of timber they’re unable to harvest, but the program is years behind in funding. Lastly, the law permitted the creation of alternate harvest restrictions, but a plan has yet to be put in place.

This can cause significant hardship for small forestland owners such as Ken Miller, who has only conducted one harvest since 1989 when he first acquired the property. “You can imagine me as a small owner trying to understand all that I need to do in this complex legislation that was enacted in 1999.”

He added that “I do remain a strong supporter of Forests and Fish as negotiated by our leadership and intended by the legislation, and that we helped get passed, despite a near revolution within our membership.”

“Rather than deal with the regulations further, we’re hearing about people developing (forestland),” WFFA Executive Director Elaine Oneil said. “We’re hearing about elderly landowners whose heirs don’t want anything to do with it.”

SB 5330 has been referred to the Rules Committee. No further action has been scheduled for HB 1273 after being referred to House Appropriations on Feb. 1.

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