First round of buffer bill records leave more questions than answers
It is Sunshine Week – a national observance of transparency in government. It is fitting, then, that I got the first installment of public records requested from the Governor’s office regarding the buffer bills of the last two years late last week.
In reviewing the documents sent my way – primarily calendar items and correspondence from folks interested in removal of the Lower Snake River Dams, support and opposition for HB 1838, and various other salmon-related interests – something struck a chord. In all the records, nearly 3,000 of them, what was missing was the most interesting part.
When HB 1838, and its Senate companion bill SB 5727, were introduced, agriculture was told to believe the Governor’s office had consulted stakeholders from all the sectors that would be affected – including agriculture. Yet, in 251 calendar items, just two were obviously with ag-related groups.
HB 1838 was a debacle – targeting rural and agricultural communities – and saving every other landscape in the state from bearing the burden of salmon recovery via riparian buffers. If anyone needed more evidence of just two meetings with agricultural stakeholders, it could be read in the bill’s land exemptions:
“(1) Enrolled in the federal conservation reserve enhancement program that establishes a riparian management zone; (2) Legally permitted and used as a public or private water access or recreational use area including stairways, landings, picnic areas, access paths, beach and watercraft access areas, and permitted water-oriented structures as provided in the shoreline master program pursuant to chapter 90.58 RCW; (3) Covered by a road, trail, building, or other structure that exists at the time of the effective date of this section; (4) Regulated by a national pollutant discharge elimination system permit and requires a riparian management zone; (5) Regulated by the forest practices act pursuant to chapter 76.09 RCW; or (6) A small parcel in which the riparian management zone would cover more than 50 percent of the parcel. Any reduction in the size of the riparian management zone must maximize riparian functions to the greatest extent practicable and take into consideration opportunities for cost share. Reductions may not be granted for parcels determined to be small because of subdivision after the effective date of this section.”
The bill did not make it out of committee before the 2022 legislative session cutoff.
The current legislative session boasted another riparian buffer bill try from the Governor’s office. When HB 1215, and its companion SB 5266, were filed at the beginning of the session, the surprise was in what had not been learned last year.
In the fall of 2022, roundtable discussions were called to bring agriculture and tribal leaders to the table to help guide the riparian zone narrative. Yet, when the Governor’s request legislation was brought forth, it was identical in spirit to HB 1838 – a bill to bend rural and agricultural landowners to the will of Olympia in the pursuit of salmon habitat.
In an unusual display of bipartisanship, House Democratic Reps. Mike Chapman and Deb Lekanoff and House Republican Reps. Joel Kretz and Tom Dent scrapped the Governor’s request legislation after noting the nearly unanimous opposition to it and directly engaged with stakeholders to craft HB 1720. You can hear about HB 1720 directly from Reps. Chapman and Kretz, courtesy of a TVW interview.
The result was a bill that received virtually no opposition. In fact, the only opposition logged during the House hearing on the bill was from Ruth Musgrave with the Governor’s office. The primary objections: a lack of standard buffer zone widths to be applied statewide and the lack of decision-making authority given to state agencies.
Of the 251 calendar invites shared with me by the Governor’s office, approximately 235 were meetings between the office and state agencies.
But here’s the thing, state agencies were relegated to being technical advisors by HB 1720 on purpose. Employees of the Office of Financial Management, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Ecology, and others generally don’t have any skin in the game. If the establishment of fish habitat on land voluntarily sacrificed by a landowner – as outlined in HB 1720 – fails, all those agency people will still go to work, collect a paycheck, and go home.
For the landowners – especially those who rely on the land for their livelihood – the removal of land from the production of their income source represents a significant gamble. For the tribal leaders who choose to put their faith in their neighbors to help restore a traditional foodstuff, it is a big gamble. It is a gamble that both groups agreed to in HB 1720 and state agency employees should not have the authority to tell either group if that gamble is “enough.”
As for applying a standard buffer width to every identified habitat area in the state, that is like asking children of different ages to wear the same pair of shoes. For some of the children, the shoes might be too small, for others too big, and, maybe, for a few just right. Riparian buffer zones are complicated to establish when looking at what plant species are the most beneficial, how far from the waterway they need to be created, and what sort of environment those buffers will be maintained in. Each identified site must be evaluated individually to ensure the best possible outcome for the fish, for the plants, and for the ongoing expenditure of funds.
I’ve been promised another installment of public records from the Governor’s office in June. Perhaps more of the “buffer bill” story will emerge when those records arrive. For now, however, I’m content to remember why Sunshine Week is such a critical celebration of anyone being able to hold the government accountable for its actions.
People have a right to know about the way decisions are made and who has a hand in making those decisions. Moreover, people have a right to ask for more detail when it seems as if public policy is being developed to grind an axe or exclude entire communities.
The misfortune of this legislative session is that HB 1720, a bill crafted by the very people who would pay the consequences outlined in it, did not get the chance to become what it should have been: the sun shining on a document created by compromise. With any luck, the clouds will part for it next year.