Big Wins for Biodiversity, Wolves, Forests, and Climate this Legislative Session!
Conservation Northwest / May 19, 2023 / Legislation, Public Lands, Restoring Wildlife
Paula Swedeen, Ph.D. Policy Director
The 2023 legislative session brought big wins for many of Conservation Northwest’s priorities, including protecting and managing state lands for carbon and biodiversity, increased capacity for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to protect the state’s natural heritage, funding and program improvements for wolf co-existence, spotted owl habitat restoration, clean energy siting that takes habitat connectivity into account, and improved multi-agency planning for recreation impacts to conservation.
Here’s the run-down:
$83 Million Budget Proviso for Increased Carbon Sequestration on Department of Natural Resources lands
This was the first time the legislature had funds coming in from the implementation of the Climate Commitment Act. In this inaugural climate budget, it was crucial to establish the importance of deploying funds from the Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) account to protect and enhance forest carbon sequestration and storage, the most effective natural climate solution available in Washington State. Our first victory – of what we hope to be many – is an $83 million proviso that directs DNR to:
- Protect 2,000 acres of structurally complex and carbon-dense mature forests that are vulnerable to logging, and purchase $70 million of replacement lands for those acres plus replacement lands for areas already set aside for spotted owl and marbled murrelet recovery under DNR’s Habitat Conservation Plan. The newly acquired timber lands must be managed for a combination of increased carbon sequestration and sustainable wood production.
- Spend $10 million on pre-commercial and commercial thinning to enhance the growth of existing managed stands.
- Pull together a stakeholder group to look at how DNR can protect additional acres of structurally complex carbon-dense forests in a manner that does not cause local mills to close, and examine how DNR can improve management to increase carbon sequestration and storage in the rest of their managed landscape.
While we would have liked to protect more older forests, we are pleased we could come to this compromise after significant opposition to our original proposal. We will be heavily involved with DNR in implementing all three aspects of this proviso and will continue to advocate for NCS funds to be used for climate-smart forest management on both state and private lands.
$23 million to WDFW to Conserve Biological Diversity
We worked with a diverse coalition of stakeholders to lobby for dedicated funding to support a backlog of work for the less noticed but so important fauna and flora of our state that are of greatest conservation need. A large portion of funds for agency operations comes from taxes on hunting and fishing gear, and most of these funds go to manage species that are hunted and fished. The legislature allocated $8 million for 2024 and $15 million for 2025 for the agency to protect habitat, restore species, conduct research, and do public education and outreach. The funding will be an ongoing part of the budget at the $15 million level in future years, so the agency can plan how best to deploy the funds to conserve biodiversity. This is a big boost for the state’s ability to meet the challenges of climate change and increased pressure from the development and use of our shared natural heritage.
There is also language in this proviso that directs the Ruckelshaus Center to conduct a review of WDFW and the Fish and Wildlife Commission for their ability to fulfill their duties as trustees of fish and wildlife on behalf of the public and a review of their current statutory mission. CNW was not involved in the drafting of or advocacy for this portion of the budget proviso though we look forward to the discussions the review stimulates.
We helped secure an increase in funding for the Northeast Washington Wolf Cattle Grant program from around $950,000 a biennium to $1.4 million to meet the rising demand for quality range riding services [PS1] to keep wolves from getting into trouble with livestock. We also got improved language for translating program requirements into grant agreements and funds for Washington State University Extension to conduct a review of the program to ensure it meets expectations for the effective use of public dollars to support wolf recovery while helping ranchers reduce the potential for losses to wolves. Finally, we got an extra $100,000 for WDFW for individual cooperative agreements for ranchers to hire range riders in areas with wolves outside of Northeast Washington to help them meet increased demand as the wolf population expands into new regions like Klickitat County.
Through its Wildlife-Recreation Coexistence program, CNW worked collaboratively with recreation stakeholders to secure a $5 million budget proviso for the three state land management agencies to better manage recreation use on public lands. Included are funds to work collaboratively with Tribal governments to develop a methodology and framework for monitoring recreation’s impact on wildlife and other natural, cultural, and Tribal resources. This proviso also dedicates funds to adaptively manage recreation at a landscape scale to more effectively protect sensitive ecosystems across state lands.
While long overdue, this funding is a huge win for wildlife. Recreation use on public land has spiked over recent years without adequate capacity and funding to manage recreation effectively, especially for habitat and wildlife sensitive to increasing human presence. This proviso is a great start for Washington to begin collaborative work with Tribal governments to manage recreation in more adaptable and sustainable ways.
We have been working for more than ten years to create incentives for private landowners to restore spotted owl habitat in key places where modeling shows such actions could help save the species from extirpation in Washington. Finally, a big piece of the puzzle to support private landowner action fell into place this session with the passage of SB 5390, which gives DNR authority to enter into a statewide voluntary Safe Harbor Agreement (SHA) for spotted owls with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The SHA will establish conditions under which landowners can grow more habitat than they currently have but not have management restrictions imposed upon them should an owl take up residence. On a landscape scale, this approach is likely to benefit the species by having more habitat at any one time than would exist in the absence of the SHA.
We also helped secure $10 million for DNR to do restoration thinning in areas designated for spotted owl habitat under their federal Habitat Conservation Plan. Because thinning is more expensive to conduct, DNR is chronically behind in ensuring that structurally simple younger stands are set on a path to become habitat over the next few decades. Without variable density thinning and intentional creation of snags, these stands would take much longer to become habitat, if they get there at all. These thinning operations will also send more commercial logs to local mills than would happen without the appropriation, countering the narrative that DNR has “locked up” hundreds of thousands of acres of land for endangered species that can’t produce wood or revenue.
Clean Energy Siting
We helped shape ESSHB 1216, requested by Governor Inslee, which streamlines permitting for the expansion of clean energy infrastructure needed to meet the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. Streamlining is accomplished primarily through focused coordination among all state agencies required to approve project permits. CNW fully supports the responsible build-out of solar, wind, and other clean energy technologies. However, this needs to happen in intelligent ways that avoid the destruction of critical habitats for species like sage and sharp tail grouse, and without cutting off connectivity corridors that wildlife needs for both day-to-day movements and to adapt to our rapidly changing climate.
A key feature of the new law requires Programmatic Environmental Impact Statements (PEIS) to be written for solar, wind, and green hydrogen. The intent of these PEIS’s is to help identify areas that minimize or avoid significant environmental impacts and impacts on cultural resources important to Tribes. CNW ensured that landscape-scale habitat connectivity and wildlife migration corridors must be analyzed and supported by strong consultation language with Tribes. New mapping that CNW helped create for the least conflict solar siting in the Columbia Plateau will be incorporated into the programmatic analyses.
While the legislation does not outright prohibit clean energy projects in places where they can destroy habitat and disrupt connectivity, the new siting law is an important step in the right direction to steer projects to places with the least conflict.
None of this would be possible without the hard work of our legislators themselves. We would like to give particular thanks to Senators Christine Rolfes, Joe Nguyen, Sharon Shewmake, Kevin Van De Wege, Shelly Short, and Judy Warnick; and Representatives Joe Fitzgibbon, Beth Doglio, Mike Chapman, and Joel Kretz.
We also thank every supporter who took the time to reach out to lawmakers to advocate for these important conservation issues and our campaign partners at the Center for Responsible Forestry.