Fish habitat buffer rule unlikely for 2021

Fish habitat buffer rule unlikely for 2021
The state since 2014 has sought to replace an interim rule for fish habitat buffers that impact timber harvests by forestland owners. Despite progress, a permanent measure isn’t likely soon. Photo: freepik.com

For almost 20 years the state has used an interim rule created after the 1999 Forests and Fish Law to establish fish habitat buffers restricting where forestland owners can harvest timber, and that approach to the issue appears not to be going away anytime soon..

Known as the Water Typing Rule, the Forest Practices Board (FPB) since 2014 has sought to replace it with permanent standards using updated data and newer models. However, the process has met with internal disagreements among stakeholders regarding the criteria used to determine whether a body of water constitutes a fish habitat – with health implications for both fish and small forestland owners disproportionately affected by these restrictions.

In November 2019, FPB directed the Water Typing Committee to reexamine a potential habitat break (PHB) spatial analysis, as well as to further study Eastern Washington water data. A year later that work is ongoing, to the point where some FPB members such as Paula Swedeen wonder if a new interim rule is warranted.

“We’re probably not going to have a rule by 2021, and depending on how things go, not have a rule for 2022 water typing season,” she said at the board’s Nov. 12 meeting. She further suggested they “take a serious look at whether or not we need to contemplate a set of interim measures to ensure that resources are being protected as intended.”

Her assessment of the rule’s completion date is shared by Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA) Senior Director of Forest and Environmental Policy Darin Cramer, a former Adaptive Management Program Administrator for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). He told Lens that a new rule by 2021 is unlikely, especially given fiscal restraints. “A tightening state budget is going to add an additional layer of challenge. Some of that work is going to need to be contracted.”

However, Cramer added that the interim rule is already protecting fish habitat and that forestland owners are actively protecting streams beyond where fish are found. “Landowners have been doing that for a long time, and it’s not necessarily spelled out clearly in the rule, but that’s what’s actually happening. The practice of water typing out on the ground is not necessarily the same as what you read in the rulebook under the interim rule.”

FPB member Tom Nelson also said a new interim rule isn’t needed. “It would have to show some sort of emergency…that I don’t see, quite frankly.”

While the technical aspects of the process are moving forward, FPB member and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation Director Jeff Davies noted that “unfortunately it’s the human pieces that may be lagging behind,” adding that important steps need to be taken to avoid a complete restart due to gridlock. “I don’t think anyone is interested in starting over.”

Cramer said the core issue dividing stakeholder is “those of us around the table have different interpretations of what we’re trying to achieve. There’s lot of different interpretations around the table about what ‘fish habitat’ means. How good is ‘good enough’ is in the eye of the beholder, and hard to get to a consensus.”

Ken Miller is a member of the TFW Policy Committee and former president of the Washington Farm Forestry Association. In an Aug. 10 memo to FPB, he argued that the “absence of supporting science has resulted in a polarized TFW (Timber Fish and Wildlife Committee) community, with a wide range of constantly evolving positions being taken due to lack of clarity on the goals, objectives, and performance expectations of the water typing system. This is reflected in the widely varying alternatives being considered by the Forest Practices Board (FPB), and lack of a consistent baseline by which to compare alternatives and assess the costs/benefits of any proposed rule.”

FPB’s next meeting has not been scheduled.

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