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Salmon recovery bill sparks plenty of testimony

by TIMOTHY FAIRBANKS-CLOUSER, Herald Legislative Writer
| January 21, 2022 1:03 AM

OLYMPIA — Highly contested legislation designed to drive up salmon populations could also devastate Washington farmers.

Some say salmon serves as a hallmark to the Pacific Northwest. It and other fish species hold major cultural significance for tribes around the state and may serve as a crucial food source.

And, as urbanization expands with the state’s growing population, fish habitats are suffering, said Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow. If Washington does not act as a whole to restore salmon populations, the species could meet extinction in its Washington habitats within this lifetime, she said. She hopes to address this crisis with House Bill 1838.

HB 1838 had a public hearing Wednesday in the House Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources. More than 100 people logged into the virtual hearing to testify. Another public hearing was slated for Friday.

Lekanoff’s bill would require, with certain exemptions, landowners with property adjacent to bodies of water in riparian management zones to maintain and protect the riparian management zone (RMZ). A RMZ is an area along streams and rivers that transition from water to land.

Riparian management zones provide habitats for different fish species, keeping them cool and out of the sun, while also providing the necessary vegetation and other food sources. Restoring riparian function means improving water quality, quantity, pollution filtration, flood protection and more.

Under the bill, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would map out RMZs for rivers and streams containing salmon and steelhead. Legislators included measures in the bill to compensate agricultural producers, to a certain extent, who lose at least half an acre of land.

The bill also requires the Salmon Recovery Funding Board to craft a statewide riparian habitat conservation grant program to help protect and restore RMZs. The program would allow property owners to cost-share the expenses of managing the zone to a certain extent.

WDFW would ensure compliance with RMZ requirements in priority watersheds identified by the department. It would also implement a web-based atlas containing data on the state’s amount and conditions of RMZs.

If passed, legislators will require counties and cities to include restoration and protection of RMZs in their next comprehensive plan update.

Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, cited several concerns with the proposed legislation, including language issues that could lead to inconsistencies in enforcement. He noted the potential reimbursement for landowners losing over a half acre is only a fraction of the value.

The loss of land means loss of production; the state’s food source is not as abundant as many people think. HB 1838 could significantly impact Washington farmers for years to come, which would affect the rest of the state, he said.

Washington agricultural producers have the highest rate of suicide for producers in the nation. Dent fears HB 1838 may further contribute to that rising statistic.

“For Native Americans, not only is the loss of salmon hard on their economic communities, Lekanoff said, “but it’s vitally important to have salmon to sustain who Native Americans are.”

Native Americans and their fishermen experience similar levels of suicide in their communities as agricultural producers do, she said. Just as legislators should protect farmers’ livelihood, they should defend fishermen and the rest of the state’s industries as well, she said.

“For without a culture, without salmon,” Lekanoff said, “who are we, but our shell.”

The tribes do nearly everything they can to restore and protect the Puget Sound salmon population, said David Herrea, Skokomish Indian Tribe member. However, the restoration of habitats statewide needs to be considered, he said.

The timber industry embraced measures and regulations to protect salmon; it’s time for others to as well, Herrea said. The whole state needs to rally alongside tribes and industries, which already contribute to restoring and protecting salmon and other species around the state, he said.

Several members from different tribes testified in support of HB 1838, applauding the effort to match native efforts to protect riparian habitats. Staff from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office also testified in support of HB 1838 on Inslee’s behalf.

HB 1838 is a significant investment in water quality around the state, said Tom Buroker, state Department of Ecology shoreline office director. With the restoration of riparian habitats, the state is implementing natural infrastructure, protecting water quality in the long-term future.

Some testifying said legislators left several key constituents affected by the bill out of the drafting process. They said farmers, landowners and other groups’ concerns were not fully considered before the public hearing and they expressed frustration with the legislation.

HB 1838 does not consider farmers’ ability to make a living off their land or the state’s food supply, said Landon Linde, Yakima County commissioner, when testifying in opposition. In addition, cities and counties would have to reassess properties’ values to reflect the owner’s loss of land.

Linde said mandatory seizing of property should amount to an unconstitutional act. He said people should work on a solution to put less strain on property owners and farmers.

Dan Wood, of the Washington State Dairy Federation, said he was opposed to the legislation, as it would potentially put many farmers out of business. He said the state would lose the capacity to grow local fruit and fibers, causing local food security to be devastated.

The impact is more extensive than farmers and fishermen, he said. The transportation industry would lose jobs. Local hospitals, schools, cities and counties will take massive blows to taxpayers, in turn further fueling the affordable housing crisis for disadvantaged people.

Skagit Valley farmer Darrin Morrison said he favored helping the salmon industry, but testified against the bill. When creating the legislation, there was zero input from farmers. He said the 90-second time slot to testify was not enough to get their concerns across.

The Voluntary Stewardship Program, created 20 years ago, would be nullified if HB 1838 passes. He said by replacing the stewardship program with Lekanoff’s bill, the state would, in turn, lose crucial agricultural land.

Morrison said the program’s lack of implementation and funding stunted the ability to prove itself. The program was designed to function similar to HB 1838, but without many measures, which may debilitate agricultural producers and other property owners.

Farmers and others who testified against the bill stated they were not opposed to recovering the salmon population. The farming industry is open to working together moving forward, but in a way benefitting all the state’s industries.

The restoration and protection of salmon and other populations is a shared responsibility of the state, not just fisherman or the native tribes, said W. Ron Allen, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe chair.

“This is not an Indian bill,” Allen said. “This is a Washington state bill.”

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