Written by Tom Bugert, State Legislative Director
Photograph by John Marshall
We can celebrate several conservation milestones from the 2016 session of the Washington Legislature, which adjourned March 29 after three months of deliberation.
Created Prescribed Fire Pilot Projects to Restore our Forests--Without question, the last few summers have seen the worst catastrophic fires our state has faced in recorded history. Past fire suppression, declining forest management, increasing drought conditions and a changing climate have left more than 2.7 million acres in need of restoration east of the Cascades alone. This bill (ESHB 2928) will begin to get fire back on the landscape in a controlled way, removing underbrush that exacerbates catastrophic fires.
Modernized the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program--This program is one of the premier conservation programs in the state of Washington and is a model for states across the country. Supported by a powerful coalition, the program has received more than $1.3 billion over the last 25 years to conserve wildlife habitat, protect streams and rivers, build parks and ballfields, conserve working farms, and create recreation spaces for everyone to enjoy. This year, a bipartisan group of legislators came together to improve the program . The changes help underserved communities access the program, promote conservation projects with multiple benefits of recreation and working lands, and give local governments a stonger voice in the application process.
Protected Against Cuts to Natural Resources--Post recession, budgets have been tight in Olympia. One of the top priorities of The Nature Conservancy during legislative session each year is to ensure that conservation programs are not cut or eliminated in difficult budget times. This year, we were pleased to see that programs like the Natural Areas Program, which protects rare plant and animal species, and programs like the Puget Sound Nearshore Restoration Program, which restores the shorelines of Puget Sound, were restored after being initially proposed for reduction or elimination in the budget.
Unfortunately, there were several Conservancy priorities that were not adopted this year. We look forward to engaging with the legislature and the public over the next few months to bring these issues forward again, including:
Forest Health and Fire Suppression Funding--Following last year’s catastrophic wildfires, Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark put forward a bold request for $24M to bolster the agency’s ability to both fight fires and begin to restore our forests to health. While the legislature was able to appropriate some funding for these essential priorities, state budget constraints meant that the majority of the Commissioner’s request went unfulfilled. Major work was also done this session on a forest and fire omnibus bill (SB 6657). It didn’t pass during this session, but the work done so far sets the table for a major push in 2017. The Conservancy looks forward to working with DNR and other stakeholders to ensure that our state’s forests are resilient to fires, insects and disease, and that DNR has the resources it needs to keep our forests and our communities safe.
Restoring Payment in Lieu of Taxes—When the state puts land into protected status, to restore habitat for wildlife and create recreational opportunities for sportsmen, hikers, bikers and ORV users, the local county is reimbursed for lost tax revenue through a mechanism called Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT). Unfortunately, during the recession, these payments were frozen, which put local governments in the difficult position of choosing between public land for their constituents and tax revenue to pay for essential services. This year, we created a coalition of counties, hunters and anglers, and environmental organizations to try to restore this funding. We were able to get a floor vote in the House this year but unfortunately the bill did not pass. We look forward to bringing back this critical legislation again in 2017.
Stay tuned over the next few months as we look towards a legislative agenda for 2017 that prepares our state for fires, drought, flooding, and climate change while ensuring clean water, clean air and healthy people and wildlife.