Inslee’s buffer bill faced uncertain future, Senate ag chairman says

By DON JENKINS Capital PressFeb 4, 2022

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee’s buffer bill officially died Feb. 3, a proposal that if passed likely would have been overturned by referendum, Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Kevin Van De Wege said.

The buffer bill fell victim to a deadline for legislation to pass either a Senate or House committee. Bills that didn’t clear that first hurdle were set aside for the rest of the session.

Van De Wege, a Sequim Democrat, told the governor’s advisers at a committee meeting Feb. 3 that the bill was probably doomed anyway because Inslee didn’t test public support for it.

“I don’t think it has passed the court of public opinion,” Van De Wege said.

“I’d be worried about doing a heavy lift like that and then just simply have it overturned by referendum, which I think would be likely the way the bill was introduced,” he said.

The bill stemmed from Inslee and tribal officials agreeing that voluntary conservation measures were not enough to recover salmon. Inslee proposed fining rural landowners up to $10,000 a day for not planting trees along streams and rivers.

Dubbed the Lorraine Loomis Act after the late chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, the bill was the centerpiece of the governor’s $187 million salmon recovery proposal.

With the bill’s demise a foregone conclusion, Inslee policy advisers met with the Senate agriculture committee to talk about the governor’s salmon plan, which includes a $375,000 study of breaching four Lower Snake River dams.

“The governor remains committed to ensuring we arise to the occasion and make significant investments in salmon recovery and habitat restoration this session,” Inslee environmental policy adviser Jennifer Hennessy said.

The governor’s office recognizes that the buffer bill has been set aside for this session and “will require additional discussions with stakeholders, local governments and tribes over the interim,” she said.

Inslee’s buffer bill declared that all Washingtonians depend on healthy riparian habitat and that protecting salmon is a priority for all Washingtonians.

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“Was there any polling done to see how much support it had among Washingtonians?” Van De Wege asked.

Hennessy said she was not aware of any polling on the bill.

“It came about as the result of a government-to-government coordination with the tribes, and we certainly recognize there’s more work that needs to be done to talk about the need for riparian habitat with a variety of stakeholders,” she said.

Inslee broadly outlined his buffer proposal at an event in December hosted by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Skagit County. The text of the bill was introduced just before lawmakers convened a month later.

Tribal officials and environmental groups supported the buffer bill, while farm groups opposed it.

The bill would not have applied to small parcels or land with buildings or streets, but would have applied to farmland.

Farmers said the bill demanded big buffers, regardless of the terrain and disregarded the fish habitat protected by agricultural land, they said.

The bill did not specify the width of buffers, though a state Department of Fish and Wildlife report suggested buffers could be as wide as 250 feet beginning at the edge of the floodplain in some places.

The state Department of Agriculture, which was not involved in developing the legislation, estimated 200-foot buffers would take up more than 11,000 acres of farmland in Skagit County alone.

Those involved in developing the legislation did not offer similar estimates. 

Van De Wege suggested the governor reach out and see whether the public supports buffers. “It might just be something we think about moving forward,” he said.

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