New report could show forestland loss to housing

New report could show forestland loss to housing

After more than 20 years since the state legislature passed the Forests and Fish Law regulating timber harvests near fish habitats, small forestland owners are still fighting to get the assistance and relief promised in that law. Now, some are cautiously hopeful that a new report from the University of Washington that’s due to be released next month will highlight the effect the regulations have had so far on the overall amount of working forestland in the state.

Washington Farm Forestry Association (WFFA) former president Ken Miller owns a tree farm adjacent to Millersylvania State Park that covers more than 100 acres. He hopes that the report’s findings might put greater pressure on state agencies tasked with rulemaking and implementing the 1999 law to finally complete that work. It might also inspire future state budgets to adequately fund state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) offices intended to aid small forestland owners.

A major finding in the report is to show how much net forestland has been converted to other uses. Although it’s hard to cite an exact figure, Miller wonders if the loss will come as a shock to policymakers.

“We know anecdotally land is going to housing,” he said.

The Forests and Fish Law was passed after federal protection for the spotted owl put a halt to much of the logging industry in Western Washington. To avoid similar federal regulation on logging to protect endangered salmon species, stakeholders worked on state-level legislation creating regulations for buffers around fish habitat that prohibit timber harvesting.

However, the proposal proved controversial among WFFA members at the time, as it was well known – and the law itself acknowledges – that it disproportionately affects small forest landowners. WFFA Lobbyist Heather Hansen told Lens that while the same amount of timber acreage might be affected on land owned by Weyerhaeuser as hers, that acreage represents 35 percent of her total forestland.

Another way it disproportionately affects small forestland owners is the sheer scope of the regulatory framework; Miller notes that the full print-out copy of Washington’s crop harvesting rules dwarves those found in Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. While industrial-size timberland companies can dedicate the time and resources to navigate these rules, Miller said most small forestland owners don’t have the time or knowledge. Hansen added that while most state regulations acknowledge the difference between large and small employers, “we’re regulated just like Weyerhaeuser.”

To address this, the 1999 law created the Small Forestland Owner Office within DNR to provide technical assistance. It also established the Forest Riparian Easement Program for small forestland owners to get partial financial compensation for timberland inside the fish habitat buffers.

Yet Miller says what was promised hasn’t been delivered due to inadequate funding by the legislature. Also, the law itself broadened its scope from when it was first proposed to when it was finally signed into law.

“We thought we were supporting this (law) because of salmon,” Miller said. However, the law eventually pertained to “any creepy crawly thing that depends on water.” Hansen said six of her seven streams dry up during the summer, and the only fish found in it are minnows.

Though the Small Forestland Owner Office was well-staffed in the first few years, Miller says lately tree farmers can wait months to get technical assistance. They can wait even longer for the Forest Riparian Easement Program; he’s requested reimbursement for several acres placed within the buffer, but it took two years just for someone to come inspect the property. Three years later, he still hasn’t received partial financial compensation.

It’s one of many reasons Miller believes long-term optimism is crucial for small tree farmers, adding that it took almost a decade for fixed width buffer templates to be approved. Miller is currently a member of the Timber, Fish, and Wildlife (TFW) Policy Committee, has been working on a permanent water typing rule; the state has been using a “temporary” rule since the 1999 law was enacted.

Another policy still being worked on for years is an alternate plan template allowing small forestland owners to conduct low impact timber harvests closer to streams. WFFA presented the concept to the state Forest Practices Board (FPB) in 2015, arguing that scientific research demonstrated how reduced buffers could still be 98 percent as effective as the existing, wider ones. However, FPB referred it to the Adaptive Management Program. Almost six years later, TFW Policy has yet to find consensus for a recommendation.

Miller says one of the reasons for the lack of funding and policy implementation for small forestland owners is that they’re “invisible” to state legislators who tackle issues such as basic education funding or fish culvert replacement. He added there’s also an underlying assumption that the forestland will always be around, an attitude that could change if the new report shows a large reduction in working forests.

As more and more tree farmers like Miller hope to retire eventually, state action or lack thereof may determine whether their children keep the family business going or convert even more forestland for other purposes. For a state that prides itself on its environmental priorities, Hansen said there should be a higher emphasis on maintaining working forests that sequester carbon and protect against invasive species.

The report is expected to be released Jan. 11.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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