The 2020 Washington legislative session was, as expected, short and fast-moving. The Legislature wrapped up all business around 8:30 PM on March 12th. Of course, the last few weeks of the session were colored by the growing disruption of the coronavirus. Gov. Jay Inslee held the press conference that limited all public gatherings on the last day of the session, and the legislators were dialed into the threat.
One of the last bills to pass was a coronavirus response bill. Lawmakers passed it last so that they could add more to it if any new information came to light before adjournment. The bill allocated $200 million from the state’s rainy-day fund for response resources. This amount was increased up from $100 million in the last 24 hours of the session.
All in all, it was a good session for forest landowners. No bills passed that we opposed, and some that we supported made it to the Governor’s desk, including a law establishing the sustainable farms and fields grant program and a bill establishing a statewide environmental sustainability education program. That’s always a good first, simple test of a session.
This space has commented on the forest product’s carbon bill in the past, which was certainly our priority legislation headed into the session. However, it was far from the only issue that involved forest landowners in 2020.
While carbon was an opportunity heading into the session, there was risk around the continued, effective use of aerial herbicide applications as part of site prep for a new generation of trees. The legislation was pursued that sought to implement the recommendations of a 2019 workgroup on the topic. The final product is awaiting gubernatorial action now, but all indications are that the outcome will be one supported by the bill proponents and the Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA).
As WFPA Executive Director Mark Doumit wrote to the Governor, the proposal is: “the result of a thorough and inclusive workgroup process and make progress towards additional safeguards, transparency, and a common understanding of what is expected before, during, and after an aerial herbicide application on a working forest.”
Wildfire continued its place as a topic of interest in 2020. There were a number of bills proposed, including two that would have designated ongoing funding for forest health and other wildfire prevention efforts. In the end, the bills may not have passed, but they served as a platform for discussing the investments necessary to have healthy and fire resilient forest landscapes. Those efforts resulted in an additional $25 million appropriation to the DNR for its fire program. The funding came with some accountability measures which, if implemented correctly, should lay the groundwork for legislative confidence in future appropriations.
Forest products and forestry was front and center in other debates as well, even if the details were a little tougher to work out. The topics of community forests and plastic bags were a holdover from last year, and although it took a while to get the details ironed out, the message behind both proposals was one of support for the values provided by working forests. In the community forests conversation, it was seen in a desire to retain working forestlands, and in the bag debate, there was an undercurrent that paper was a more environmentally beneficial and locally produced product than plastic. This same desire to support working forests was seen in a separate bill that extended a preferential tax treatment for the hog fuel used in the pulp and paper process an additional ten years.
Short sessions are usually not known for the significant policy advances seen in a biennium’s long session. They are designed primarily for policy tweaks and the completion of unfinished business from the year before. Yet even with that context, forest landowners have some gains to point to and celebrate. And celebrations are something that we all need to remember to do once in a while.