Ensuring a future for small forestland

Ensuring a future for small forestland
With the 20th anniversary of the state Forests and Fish Law, small forest say they have satisfies their end of the agreement, but state obligations remain unfulfilled. Photo: freepik.com

Washington state lawmakers this session approved ESSB 5330 directing the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences to look at the economic health of small forestland owners and what can be done to preserve that land from conversion to other uses such as development.

The bill’s passage coincides with the 20th anniversary of the state Forests and Fish Law that protects watersheds and salmon habitat.

Small forestlands owners argue that while they have met their part of the agreement made in the 1999 law, the state’s obligations remain unfulfilled.

How to change that was one of the questions raised by panel members at the Washington Farm Forestry Association’s (WFFA) annual meeting on May 3 in Silverdale. The association is composed of 1,300 family memberships that manage more than 150,000 acres of forestland.

“We’re the people that not just want to do the right thing, we do the right thing,” WFFA Executive Director Elaine Oneil said at the summit.

Even without the planned UW study, previous studies suggest a significant loss of small forestland in recent years. The Washington State Forestland Database reported as of 2010 that small forestland owners made up 5.7 million acres of total forestland. The Washington Forest Protection Association now estimates it to be around 3.2 million acres, though it could be as high as 4 million. However, a provision in the Forests and Fish law authorizing a four-year industry trend analysis has never been funded by the legislature.

Yet panelists at May 3 summit emphasized the political importance of Forests and Fish. For conservationists, the law protects threatened salmon species trying to reach habitat. For forestry members, the cooperative nature of the process avoided problems created earlier in the decade when the spotted owl was listed as an endangered species and all but shut down logging activity in parts of the state.

“This (Forests and Fish) was like a train that was going to run us over if they didn’t get behind it,” former WFFA president Ken Miller said. He added that while many small foresters participated in those discussions, others were so strongly opposed they left the association and are “still frustrated.”

Panel member, former legislator and WFPA Executive Director Mark Doumit said an evenly-split Senate at the time also helped. He added that it’s the “largest environmental bill that’s been passed in the last two decades.”

U.S. Forest Service Director Vicki Christiansen also said the cooperative process “cut through the Gordian knot. It ended the zero-sum game of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong.’ Forest and Fish discovered common ground, the way of getting to ‘yes.’ If you step away and see what you all have accomplished, it’s really incredible.”

From the get-go, the 1999 law acknowledged it would disproportionately affect small forestland owners, defined as those harvests no more than two million board feet per year. The law requires that forestland owners remove fish barriers found in road culverts that impede fish passage. Another requirement is buffer zones around streams prohibiting timber harvests. Those zones often take up more area on small forestland, because those properties are located lower in the watershed where streams are wider.

To compensate, the law set up several programs for small foresters through the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), including the Forestry Riparian Easement Program that reimburses landowners up to 50 percent of the timber value they can’t harvest due to the buffer zones. Another program is the Small Forest Landowner Office that provides small forestland owners technical advice and helps them navigate state law and regulations. There is also the Family Forest Fish Passage Program (FFFPP) that provides funds to small forestland owners looking to replace road culverts; since 2003 it has helped 294 landowners remove 394 barriers and opened more than 900 miles of stream habitat.

“These folks negotiated a pretty fair deal for us,” Miller said. Yet, he added that in hindsight they were “overly trusting and very naïve about implementation.”

Since the law was enacted, the DNR programs have struggled to receive funding from the legislature. The riparian program is more than five years behind in funding, while the Small Forest Landowner Office is so underfunded that assistance can often take more than half a year.

Although ESSB 5330 was bipartisan and received unanimous support in both the House and Senate, that political mandate didn’t translate into funding for the DNR programs in this year’s budget.  According to Miller, DNR requested $17 million for its riparian easement program, but received only $2.5 million. For the fish passage program, the state agency received $5 million out of the $10 million requested, with $110 million worth of projects on the waiting list.

“The budget process seems to be a little broken,” Miller said. “Natural Resources just doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention in a state that prides itself on being environmentally conscious. So how do we make ourselves…more visible?”

If that doesn’t change, he added that “rural Washington is going to continue losing out.”

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