Our priorities for the 2021 legislative session

Our priorities for the 2021 legislative session

Conservation Northwest / Jan 29, 2021 / Action Alert, Legislation, Public Lands

It’s a budget year in Olympia. We’re supporting funding for wildlife crossings, state public lands, restoration and resilience for forests and shrub-steppe, wolf coexistence, environmental justice and more.

The 2021 session of the Washington State Legislature got underway earlier this month. It’s a busy year, especially given the focus on biannual budgets, pandemic relief and the switch to Zoom for most legislative business.

Our staff and contractors, led by Policy Director Paula Swedeen, Ph.D., have been hard at work pushing for priority issues that benefit Washington’s wildlands and wildlife, as well as supporting the efforts of partner groups including the Environmental Priorities Coalition (of which we’re a member organization) and Northeast Washington Wolf Cattle Collaborative (which our Wolf Program Lead administers).

Check out an overview of Conservation Northwest’s priorities this legislative session below, and stay tuned for more details and ways to take action as session progresses!

Funding to protect more state lands for wildlife, recreation and other public values through Trust Land Transfers is among our priorities this session. Photo from Blanchard Mountain by Paul Anderson.

Support for nature-based climate solutions

We’re working with fellow environmental champions, lawmakers and others to ensure that legislation to address climate change and protect against its impacts (especially to marginalized or vulnerable communities and tribes) includes funding for nature-based climate solutions.

By investing in carbon storage, especially in forests, floodplain restoration and other natural buffers that support both climate mitigation and adaptation, we can help protect and restore Washington’s public and private forest and shrub-steppe habitats and conserve key areas needed for wildlife connectivity and adaptation to climate change.

We’re also keeping a watchful eye on solar energy development proposals to ensure they do not present new threats to birds and wildlife in central and eastern Washington, especially on our public lands.

$17.4 million in the Capital Budget for DNR Trust Land Transfers

Washington has about three million acres of state public lands managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Of this, almost two million acres belong to the Common School Trust. DNR generally logs these acres to fund school construction. But some places are more valuable and pristine, providing important recreation areas, wildlife habitat or other public benefits, so the Legislature created a process to protect crown jewels by using Capital Budget dollars to buy them out of Trust status.

Yet funding for Trust Land Transfers (TLT) has declined since before the 2008 recession, putting at risk vital natural areas with strong public support. By including $17.4 million in the Capital Budget for TLT, state legislators will fund the program and protect four special places: Devils Lake (Dabob Bay),Morning Star (near Sultan), Blakely Island and Eglon (near Kingston). Take action today!

$18 million in the transportation budget package for Safe Passage 97

You’ve heard about the Safe Passage 97 project from us before, and this is not the first time we’ve gone to the legislature requesting funding for the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to reduce dangerous vehicle-animal collisions on Highway 97 in the Okanogan Valley; home to our state’s largest herd of mule deer and the worst stretch of roadway for roadkill.

This project has broad local and regional support, and needs to be continued another 11 miles to reduce accidents and the loss of animal life. Using estimates prepared by WSDOT, $18 million is requested this session to continue fencing and six wildlife underpasses to prevent an additional 244 vehicle-animal collisions per year. We are asking that this amount be included in the next large multi-year transportation package being negotiated during the 2021 legislative session. Join us in taking action!

Two mule deer use a wildlife undercrossing at I-90 near Snoqulamie Pass. Photo: WSDOT

WSDOT funding to study and build more wildlife crossings

Innovative wildlife crossings to protect motorists, reduce roadkill and reconnect large landscapes for species big and small have been a huge success on I-90 at Snoqualmie Pass, and we’re hopeful 2021 is the year the legislature funds the Safe Passage 97 project after seeing the results of our initial privately-funded work. But our collaborative efforts for wildlife crossings don’t end with these two projects.

We’re calling on lawmakers to include funding in the Transportation Budget package for WSDOT to study, plan and eventually install additional wildlife crossings at priority locations, such as on Highway 20 in the Skagit Valley, I-90 between Ryegrass and Vantage, and Highway 12 near the Satsop River or I-5 between Centralia and Battleground. We’re also working with partners at the Environmental Priorities Coalition to coordinate this effort with their Clean and Just Transportation package.

DNR funding for forest health and wildfire suppression

Through our Forest Field and State Lands programs, we’ve long worked closely with the Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service and other partners to support ecological restoration. We champion the approach of restoring forest and shrub-steppe resilience (including through thinning and prescribed burning in dry forests) while also enhancing community preparedness. We’ve supported past legislative efforts towards more funding for DNR to respond to wildfires and proactively restore wildlands health, as well as for Rangeland Fire Protection Associations.

This year, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and legislators have proposed House Bill 1168, which asks for $75.2 million to expand and modernize Washington’s firefighting capabilities, $31.4 million for forest restoration, $5.9 million for workforce training, and $12.6 million to protect communities. While we’re supportive of the general concept, we have concerns that anti-fire bias driving the legislative push will undermine forest health outcomes, as prescribed and managed fire are urgently needed tools, especially as climate change bears down.

While the bill will fund science-based forest health restoration on state trust lands and broader landscapes, we are troubled by an emphasis on the use of Categorical Exclusions for forest health projects on Forest Service land. Categorical exclusions shortcut both the expert scientific input needed to design good projects, and opportunities for public and community input. Similarly, the bill emphasizes outsourcing Forest Service scientific reviews to private contractors, slowing down restoration pace and quality. We expect to share more information on this issue later in session.

A range rider at work in northeast Washington.

WDFW and WDA funding for coexistence with wolves

For years we’ve championed efforts to secure funding for proactive, non-lethal deterrence measures to reduce conflict between wolves and livestock, promoting coexistence between people and these iconic carnivores as they recover in our state. This includes funding for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and for the Northeast Washington Wolf Livestock Management Grant, which has supported the Northeast Washington Wolf Cattle Collaborative and other efforts. (Note that these programs are separate from our privately-funded Range Rider Pilot Project, though deterrence methods are similar).

Working with the agencies and partners in the conservation and ranching communities, this year we’re seeking $954,000 in wolf conflict deterrence for WDFW and $752,000 for the Department of Agriculture. This priority is also supported by our partners at the Environmental Priorities Coalition through their Conservation Works platform.

We’re also working with legislators to slightly modify the Northeast Washington Wolf Livestock Management Grant to ensure rigorous standards of quality and transparency are applied for all range riding and other wolf-livestock conflict deterrence work funded by Washington taxpayer dollars, similar to the standards recently approved by the state’s Wolf Advisory Group.

Legislators’ letter to Victoria calling for B.C. mining reform

Through our Healthy Watersheds Campaign, we’ve been working with Canadian groups, First Nations, Washington Tribes and conservation allies to push for mining reform in British Columbia, especially increased protections for transboundary rivers like the Skagit and Similkameen that flow downstream into the U.S.

Our priorities include securing resolutions from tribal governments, a letter from Governor Jay Inslee to B.C. Premier John Horgan, and a joint memorial or letter from legislators expressing their concerns. We have an action alert available to contact lawmakers, and will be sharing updates and a new video produced with Canadian and tribal partners illustrating trans-border concerns about potential mining disasters.

Sage brush and wildflowers near Moses Coulee. Central Washingtons sagelands are expansive, but fragmented, and have been heavily impacted by recent large wildfires. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Shrub-steppe fire recovery and preparedness proviso

Our Sagelands Program Lead Jay Kehne has been working with WDFW, Washington Audubon, the Arid Lands Initiative and other allies on behalf of a funding proviso to support wildfire recovery and other habitat restoration efforts in central Washington’s shrub-steppe.

This include a cost-share to replace burnt fences with more wildlife-friendly fencing that supports species such as pronghorn antelope and sage grouse, sagebrush seed collection and reseeding, and a hay supply program for ranchers to help defer cattle grazing on sensitive range lands burned during 2020 wildfires. More detail is available in this fact sheet from the WDFW.

Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act

We support environmental justice efforts led by the Environmental Priorities Coalition and our friends at the Washington Environmental Council for the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act, Senate Bill 5141. Where you live, your income, race or language ability should not determine how healthy and safe you are. But individual health and well-being indicators can vary significantly according to who we are and where we live.

The HEAL Act is a recommendation from the Environmental Justice Task Force, and adds an essential racial equity lens to the environmental program work done by the state. Everything from culturally appropriate public engagement to how implementation and enforcement of environmental protections is conducted to funding prioritization will be strengthened to better serve the public.

Funding for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program

As a member organization of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, we support the coalition’s request this session for more than $100 million for Washington state’s most effective funding program for supporting habitat, public lands and outdoor recreation access: the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program. WWRP projects mitigate the impacts of rapid population growth on the environment, create outdoor recreation opportunities for families across the state, preserve wildlife habitat, and protect cherished places all across the state. They also allow hunters, anglers, farmers, ranchers and foresters to protect the land their families have depended on for generations. Learn more on this WWRC webpage.

Visit our NEWS UPDATES WEBPAGE for our latest statements on legislation and ways to take action. Stay tuned for more information and opportunities to get involved!
Baker Lake at Sunrise. Photo: Andy Porter