(The Center Square) — At a Wednesday morning [January 19, 2022] House committee public hearing, Native American tribal representatives made known their support for legislation that would require landowners to set aside large buffers on each side of streams on their land to help salmon. Farmers and their allies countered that passing such a law would devastate agriculture in Washington state.
The Lorraine Loomis Act – named after the late chair for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and Swinomish fisheries manager – calls for mandatory riparian buffers to conserve the iconic fish, including $10,000-a-day-fines for landowners who don’t plant trees along waterways crossing their property.
Tribal representatives, as well as members of Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration, spoke before a virtual meeting of the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee that saw more than 100 people on both sides testify about House Bill 1838.
“Salmon are an important part of this industry – always has been for Washington state,” said Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, who introduced the legislation via HB 1838. (Its companion in the other chamber is Senate Bill 5727).
Lekanoff, the only Native American member of the Washington State Legislature, went on to say, “This is an important bill for all Washingtonians.”
Loomis’s nephew, Swinomish Vice Chair Jeremy Wilbur, helped craft the legislation.
“The act is necessary because the status quo is failing our salmon, failing our killer whales, failing all of Washingtonians that enjoy fishing here in Puget Sound,” Wilbur told the committee, dismissing any notion the legislation amounts to the taking of private property.
J.T. Austin, senior policy advisor to Gov. Inslee, agreed.
“A shift in the trajectory of salmon recovery requires aggressive, different action and attitudes, for everyone is suffering from the degradation of our environment,” she said.
According to the biennial “State of the Salmon in Watersheds 2020” report, 14 species of salmon and steelhead are listed as at-risk of extinction under the Endangered Species Act.
Farmers, farm groups and other supporters expressed dismay at the prospect of a lot of farmland being taken out of production, but also with being kept out of the loop in terms of the writing of the legislation.
“You know, the biggest problem for us as farmers and other landowners was zero input from anybody asked when they created this bill,” said Darrin Morrison, a fourth-generation farmer in Skagit Valley.
He added, “The act’s going to come at a huge loss of farmland. If we lose our farmland…we’re going to lose our local food system.”
“You guys need red potatoes with this salmon on your dinner plate,” he concluded.
Others returned to being shut out of the process.
“House Bill 1838 was created without stakeholder input, and as a result is an unfunded mandate that would nullify the Voluntary Stewardship Program,” said Ron Wesen of the Skagit County Board of Commissioners.
The Voluntary Stewardship Program helps fish through conservation projects by willing landowners.
“The Voluntary Stewardship Program and local food security would be devastated,” said Dan Wood, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation. “Our state will lose capacity to grow local fresh food and fiber.”
That will negatively impact the state’s tax base, Wood said, resulting in increased taxes to make up the difference.
“The stewards of the land were obviously not consulted in this, which is quite shameful,” said Washington Farm Bureau (WFB) President Rosella Mosby. “Farmers are your friends in conservation. I encourage you to find ways to ensure all parties have a seat at the table for these critical efforts.”
Her WFB colleague concurred.
“Truly a collaborative approach is needed to find a workable path forward,” said Tom Davis, WFB director of government relations.
Whatcom Family Farmers Executive Director Fred Likkel said there has already been one casualty on that front.
“But trust now due to this process has really been damaged,” he said.
Yakima County Commissioner Landon Linde summed up what worries farmers about the Lorraine Loomis Act.
“It does not take into account the impact on farmers’ ability to make a living on their property or to our food supply,” he said.
And then there’s the prospect of a protracted legal battle.
“If passed, the takings of private lands issues will certainly end up in the courts,” Davis said. “This benefits no one.”
Rep. Tom Den, R-Moses Lake, a rancher in Grant County with a long history in farming, put things into perspective.
“The ag sector in the United States of America and in the state of Washington has the highest rate of suicide of anything,” he said. “And this kind of a load to put on our agriculture producers could push even more folks into that barrel.”
Farmers are among those who are at greater risk of dying by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
An hour after the 10 a.m. start of the committee public hearing that was still going on, Sens. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, and Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, held a short virtual press conference where they reiterated many of the same complaints against the buffer bill.