New wetland mitigation option for project planners could help fund small forests and riparian conservation

By Raechel Dawson
WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Gov. Chris Gregoire plans to sign a bill on Monday that would allow project planners an option to fund environmental programs if they cannot comply with wetland mitigation requirements.

Currently, one of these programs has about $10 million in dues to small-forest landowners, according to officials in forestry.

Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, sponsored House bill 2238, which would allow public or private entities, looking to start projects, the option of providing monetary funds toward state environmental agencies in lieu of required on-site wetland mitigation.

"(This option) is good for small private landowners," said Wilcox. "A lot of promises were made to them in the course of passing forestry regulations that were never fulfilled. So this is a way of helping them, without taking new taxpayer dollars."

The act of providing a subsidy for certain ecological agencies would be added to state and federal compensatory wetland mitigation procedures if the Department of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife deemed there would be no other way for the entity's project plan to comply.

Undergoing compensatory wetland mitigation is when the those constructing a project cannot avoid the disruption of a wetland, in which case the project proponents would then be required to  "replace" wetland resources.

These projects usually entail the construction of highways, rail-line, airports, marine terminals, utility corridors, harbor arenas or hydroelectric facilities. But non-infrastructure related projects such as a strip mall, housing community or hotels are included as well.

When these entities are required to undertake compensatory wetland mitigation they must create a plan that will enhance, preserve, create or restore other wetlands.

But Wilcox's bill would amend Chapter 90.74 RCW (the Aquatic resources mitigation law) to allow project participants to provide a cash amount for forestry programs such as the Forestry Riparian Easement Program and Riparian Open Space, both administered by the Department of Natural Resources, and the Family Forest Fish Passage Program, which is managed by the Recreation and Conservation Office.

These agencies fund conservation easements on small forestlands by working toward offsetting the high costs of riparian buffers and the overall conservation of small forests. Some of this preservation includes the maintenance and construction of forest roads and offsetting harm to the fish habitat.

Just over 50 percent of Washington is covered in forest (22.1 million acres) and 90,000 small forest landowners own 22 percent of forestland.

Fiscal analysts aren't sure how much money could be generated from this mitigation option but it may be a small step in the right direction for severely underfunded small-forest landowners, according to Wilcox.

"This bill has the opportunity to help fund what the state has failed to be able to fund so far," said Rick Dunning, executive director of the Washington Farm Forestry Association.

Dunning referred to the lack of state funding from the Forest Riparian Easement Program, which was drastically reduced in 2009 because of lack of funds in the capital budget.

"Like all state supported programs in this budget-situation we're in, funding has decreased and (small forest landowners) lost funding over the last couple of years as part of the budget reductions that everybody's dealing with," said Bryan Flint, spokesman from the Department of Natural Resources.

Despite the $20 million the program did receive, Dunning said the state has $10 million in arrears.

To help small forest landowners, the Forest Riparian Easement Program was developed as a result of the Forest and Fish law.

It was supposed to provide easement for 50 years to compensate small-forest landowners for land they could not harvest under the Forest and Fish Law, according to Flint. He said this was to prevent landowners from losing money.

"The Forest and Fish Rules of Washington has promised the small business of tree farming nearly a billion dollars worth of payment for the timber that we're required to leave (on river banks)," said Dunning.


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