When the mandate for large buffers outlined in HB 1838 were widely panned, the bill failed to make it out of committee. However, ESSHB 1117, a bill originally introduced in the 2021 legislative session that would prioritize “net ecological gain” by creating a standard for salmon bearing riparian areas that drain into marine waters was quickly revived.
While HB 1838 was not subtle about laying out the mandated approach to riparian buffer expansion, ESSHB 1117 is more opaque. ESSHB 1117 offers significantly more money to create “net ecological gain” for salmon recovery than HB 1838 but still effectively operates as a backdoor mandate by forcing landowners to adopt a single-species recovery plan.
“Net ecological gain,” is defined in the bill as, “a standard for a comprehensive plan adopted under this chapter in which the ecological integrity within each WRIA or independent natural drainage that flows directly into marine waters of the planning area in improved and enhanced during the planning period as a result of the measures adopted by the planning body, and other activities that occur within the planning jurisdiction including, but not limited to, activities identified in the applicable salmon recovery plan, including no net loss of ecological function with respect to the permitting of individual projects in order to advance salmon recovery and other environmental benefits,” has very little to do with keeping people safe and fed. It would also come at the expense of the Voluntary Stewardship Program which is already working to protect wildlife and other species.
The Voluntary Stewardship Program was created in 2011 and operates in 27 counties throughout the state to identify and protect critical areas, including those on farmland, by creating “locally led work plans that use voluntary, incentive-based tools.”
The Pacific Northwest has seen what myopic focus on single-species recovery can do to communities, businesses, and ecosystems. In 1986, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition to list the Spotted Owl as an endangered species and started down a path of unintended consequences.
Communities that relied upon logging and forestry businesses found themselves struggling to survive. Families who had been employed harvesting trees for generations found themselves out of work.
The question at hand is whether we are about to make the same mistake with salmon restoration at the expense of our food production systems. Like the effort to save the Spotted Owl, the effort to save salmon has put the emphasis upon a single species to the exclusion of everything else.
The Voluntary Stewardship Program provides the best opportunity for agricultural producers to maintain food production on their farms while also being encouraged to follow their moral and ethical compass by creating areas in which wildlife can find shelter from development and other threats to its existence. Many farms and ranches have preexisting buffers that act as habitat for native species, provide a home for insects, and offer room for native flora which can be worked into an integrated plan through the Voluntary Stewardship Program to best support the ecosystem specific to the region of the producer.
At the beginning of the 2022 legislative session, the Food Policy Forum made recommendations to the legislature about how best to support food production systems and consumers in Washington. The recommendations included suggestions like ensuring public schools had adequate funding and flexibility to purchase food from local farms and exploring the use of state resources to maximize participation and access to nutrition assistance programs. Other recommendations included supporting local food producers to ensure their continued success for the betterment of our state by protecting “farm viability and production” and addressing “conservation and climate change goals.”
None of the recommendations from the Food Policy Forum suggest a mandate or a single-species recovery action is the best means of supporting our food production system.
If Washingtonians want to save salmon, it is time to take a holistic view. In some counties, buffers are already in place for swan habitat; in others, habitat for burrowing owls, sage grouse, or lynx have all been prioritized by landowners. We need to clarify how we are choosing to ask landowners to be responsible about wildlife restoration and the prioritization of their ability to maintain a livelihood. If buffers already exist for other species, are landowners expected to double-down for salmon riparian buffers? Or are the preexisting buffers for other species supposed to be abandoned in favor of salmon buffers?
Rather than putting forth bills like HB 1838 and ESSHB 1117, both of which muddy the waters of what it means to be a responsible steward of the land, fully funding the Voluntary Stewardship Program is the first step in a long process to create a healthy environment that is beneficial for us all. The Voluntary Stewardship Program considers the needs of each individual site – the wildlife, the landowner, and the environment – and provides a solution that is workable for all affected groups.
The counties that currently do not participate in the Voluntary Stewardship Program – Whatcom, Snohomish, King, Pierce, Island, Kitsap, Jefferson, Clallam, Wahkiakum, Clark, Skamania, and Klickitat – should be encouraged to opt into the program to prioritize wildlife habitat recovery and the survival of landowners. Then, the onus should be placed upon landowners to do their part to contribute to the betterment of our state through voluntary wildlife restoration.