Ensuring the robust recovery of salmon has become a daunting and politicized task. The latest policy proposal championed by the Office of the Governor is facing sharp criticisms from Skagit County-area lawmakers who view it as an unconstitutional taking of private property that will do nothing to aid the salmon recovery while allowing politically connected interests that are doing more harm to salmon-recovery efforts off the hook. The governor’s solution directly conflicts with provisions of the Growth Management Act that require preservation of farmland.
Senate Bill 5727 and SB5665 are nonstarters for 10th District state Sen. Ron Muzzall and 39th District state Sen. Keith Wagoner, whose districts include parts of the Skagit River Basin. They argue that the proposal to require property owners along the Skagit River to create and pay for large buffers is an unethical land grab.
“If the policies in these bills are adopted, private-property owners will be burdened with an extreme cost to achieve an ideological goal that won’t help our salmon-recovery efforts,” said Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor. “It’s indefensible.”
Earlier this year, the state Department of Ecology moved to implement a policy that would have taken away livestock owners’ ability to water their livestock by requiring additional water rights. Similarly, this salmon recovery-related legislation seeks to take away private-property rights by requiring non-use of an estimated 200 feet of land on either side of a body of water.
Under the governor’s request legislation, new programs are established with onerous requirements for compensation to restore riparian habitat along targeted watersheds. Muzzall and Wagoner point to a larger issue being ignored that could more immediately help salmon along the Skagit River.
An area tribe is currently suing Seattle City Light over three dams it owns on the Skagit River that have no fish passages to allow spawning salmon to return home. The public entity has lobbied to stop salmon-recovery requirements from being imposed on their dams, including seeking exemptions from federal regulators.
“There is a simple solution here that doesn’t require a new, complex program modeled off an existing one that’s failing,” said Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley. “Rather than taking people’s property rights away, Seattle City Light could live by what they say and build the infrastructure to help salmon get through their dams; approximately 40% of the river is currently inaccessible for spawning.”
Currently, riparian lands are managed voluntarily under the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and by working forestland owners under the Forest and Fish program. Agriculture land and open space are regulated at the county level. The new bill removes local jurisdiction and gives enforcement authority to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Putting the onus on private citizens, without any evidence that this approach will work while remaining silent about the complete inaccessibility of the watershed caused by Seattle City Light, is the height of hypocrisy,” added Muzzall.
In the governor’s budget, Seattle City Light is to receive millions in state taxpayer money to finally address the salmon passage issue.
“The state is taking away land from farmers and other private citizens to give to a public entity that’s swimming in money, and the state taxpayers have to foot bill. It’s just plain wrong,” said Wagoner.