A bill to study the economic health of Washington small forestland owners has cleared the legislature with unanimous support. ESSB 5330 sponsored by Sen. John Braun (R-20) received a “thumbs up” from the state House on April 17, following its passage in the Senate on Feb. 27.
Small forestland makes up roughly 3.2- 4 million acres of all Washington forestland. However, advocacy groups say they’ve struggled since the state passed the 1999 Forests and Fish Law approved 20 years ago. That law seeks to protect salmon and salmon habitat by creating “buffer zones” on forestland where timber harvests are prohibited. At the time, it was known that the provisions would disproportionately affect small forestland owners.
To address that, the state created the Small Forest Landowner Office under the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) along with the Forestry Riparian Easement Program. However, forestry advocacy groups say both have lacked state funding to perform their duties. The 1999 law also allowed for alternate harvest restrictions, but none have been implemented yet.
Rep. Brian Blake (D-19) told colleagues on the House floor that although “our small forest land owners are really the backbone of our forests in Washington state” the Forest and Fish Law places a greater restriction on their land because they’re located farther down in the watershed where rivers are wider. This creates “pressure to develop and convert these properties,” he added.
Under ESSB 5330, the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences will analyze the impact of the 1999 law on small forestland owners and examine trends in the industry. One of the questions it will answer is how many small forestland owners there actually are, and how much forestland has been converted to other uses. The report is due to the legislature by November 2020.
“This is just an effort to…look at what those regulatory pressures are that they’re facing and give us an idea of where we might make changes to help keep these lands in forestry,” Blake said.
Immediately after voting for ESSB 5330, House lawmakers also approved a bill related to forest health. SJM 8005 sponsored by Rep. Shelley Short (R-7) encourages further research into biochar, a fine-grain charcoal created with waste material that has the potential to treat wastewater and soil.
“This is a great opportunity to look at that research and to also help develop a market here in Washington state,” Rep. Matt Shea (R-4) said, who cosponsored the House companion bill HJR 4000. SJM 8005 had previously passed the Senate on Feb. 25 in a unanimous vote.