Legislature Goes to Overtime: Here's What We're Watching

By Tom Bugert, state legislative director for The Nature Conservancy in Washington

Over the weekend, Gov. Jay Inslee called the Washington state Legislature into a special session to begin budget negotiations. Mike Stevens, state director of The Nature Conservancy, issued the following statement:

State Director Mike Stevens

State Director Mike Stevens

As legislative leaders begin to negotiate the state’s two-year budget in earnest, it is critical for the economic prosperity, community safety and quality of life of our region that our environment and natural resources remain a high priority.
Legislators in both chambers should be commended for their focus on promoting healthy resilient forests and reducing wildfire risk through their proposed expansion of the state Forest Hazards Program and unanimous support of two forest-health bills.
We are concerned that proven programs like Floodplains by Design, a multiple benefits program that has demonstrably protected communities like Orting from catastrophic flooding, has one of the largest funding gaps between the Senate's ($16 million) and House’s ($51 million) proposed budgets. We urge legislators to support the House version to maintain this innovative approach to our rivers and floodplains. Likewise, the Senate’s proposal to zero out the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s prescribed fire program that drew the line against the megafires in the Okanogan in 2015 is troubling and we hope that cut will be restored in the final budget.

The Washington State Capitol building. Photo by Hannah Letinich.

Here’s the state of play:

Good news:

Legislators from both chambers support expansion of the Department of Natural Resources' forest-hazards program, proposing $15 million in the Senate and $13 million in the House capital budgets. This support for a restoration strategy that encompasses all forest lands, not just state-owned lands, builds off the unanimous passage of two forest-health bills last week (SB 5546 and HB 1711) to continue the momentum we’ve seen over the last few years to begin to restore 2.7 million acres of unhealthy forests.

Legislators from both chambers support the Washington Coast Restoration Initiative, a locally driven program that creates good family wage jobs while improving the health of coastal forests, fish and wildlife. The Senate proposes $12.5 million in funding, while the House proposes $10 million in funding.

We’re also grateful that the Senate proposed a $3.2 million fix to the freeze on "payments in lieu of taxes," which help rural counties pay for the fire, emergency and other services for public lands in their counties. Read more in the Wenatchee World’s editorial last month.

Areas of concern:

The House’s proposed budget undermines the integrity of the Washington Wildlife & Recreation Program, our state’s marquee public-lands program, by cherry-picking projects from a competitively ranked list. We urge you to let your Legislators know that you support the Senate version, which maintains the integrity of this 35-year-old program.

Floodplains by Design, a multiple benefits program that has demonstrably protected communities like Orting from catastrophic flooding has one of the largest funding gaps between the Senate ($16 million) and House’s ($51 million) proposed budgets. We urge support of the House version.

Despite support for forest health previously mentioned, we are troubled by the Senate’s proposal to zero out the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) prescribed fire program. As we saw in the Carlton fires in 2015 in the Okanogan, WDFW has used prescribed fire with great effectiveness to both reduce the risk of megafires and promote long-term resilience of our state’s forests.

Prescribed fire in ponderosa pine forest in the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area in Okanogan County, Wash. Photo by John Marshall.

Finally, we’ll be watching many of the proposed climate bills that have been introduced this session. It is clear that momentum is building for climate action. The trick now is to find a climate solution that works best for Washington.

The Conservancy will be working shoulder to shoulder with businesses, farmers, ranchers, foresters, shellfish growers, local communities and environmental organizations to speak with one voice for conservation over the coming months. We hope that you will join us in using your outside voice for nature and people.

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