Landmark environmental legislation helps protect Washington’s native fish and aquatic species and cool, clean water.

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Twenty years after the historic Forests & Fish Law was approved by the state legislature and then-Governor Gary Locke, public agencies, private timber companies, county and tribal governments, and environmental groups are still working together to protect 60,000 miles of streams running through 9.3 million acres of state and private forestland.

This landmark environmental legislation is designed to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act to protect Washington’s native fish and aquatic species and cool, clean water. It was passed as part of the 1999 Salmon Recovery Act and is a cornerstone of the 50-year Forest Practices Habitat Conservation Plan approved by the federal government in 2006.

Protecting salmon habitat in the forest

Today, salmon recovery remains a top legislative priority as policymakers, interest groups and lawmakers strive to achieve sustainable salmon populations. “Salmon are an integral part of Washington’s culture, spirit and identity,” says Mark Doumit, Washington Forest Protection Association executive director and a former state legislator. “It is our collective responsibility to protect them, and private forestland owners have stepped up by partnering with tribal and county governments, and state and federal agencies to fix thousands of culverts to protect fish and the environment.”

Conservation efforts including road maintenance and strategic abandonment have resulted in reducing sediment flow to streams by 82% and enabled the set-aside of more than two million acres of riparian buffers of forests adjacent to streams crossing through state, tribal and private forests.

Science-based, adaptive forest management

Science-based forest management is integral in keeping water in streams clean, and cool, and overall protection of the environment. The Forests & Fish Law includes an adaptive management process with strict standards for producing scientific research. The Forest Practices Act states, “The adaptive management process shall incorporate the best available science and information, include protocols and standards, regular monitoring, a scientific peer review process, and provide recommendations to the board on proposed changes to forest practices rules to meet timber industry viability and salmon recovery.” (RCW 76.09.370(7))

The Adaptive Management Program provides science-based information to ensure forestry operations are conducted in a way that restores salmon habitat and protects water quality. Multi-stakeholder participants include representatives from federal and state natural resource agencies, forest landowners, county governments, the environmental community, and tribal governments. Using science to measure the effects of forest practices over time, guarantees that leaving buffers of trees alongside streams will keep water cool and clean; removing and replacing fish-blocking culverts provides more habitat for salmon to swim; protecting potentially unstable slopes to minimizes erosion and sediment entering streams; and upgrading roads to the latest standards results in observable benefits for fish and aquatic species across the state. The goal of adaptive management is to make adjustments as quickly as possible to forest practices that are not achieving the goals of protecting clean water and providing fish habitat.

A landmark collaboration works for forests and fish

The Forests & Fish Law resulted in the most comprehensive set of forestry regulations in the nation, endorsed by the federal government through Washington’s 50-year Forest Practices Habitat Conservation Plan. This resulted in forest landowners setting aside nearly 2.6 million acres for conservation in streamside buffers for fish and wildlife species, representing more than 20% of the working forest land base.  The collaboration of private, state, county, environmental and tribal forest landowners started working together decades ago to develop forest practices through the Timber Fish Wildlife partnership to provide for a healthy environment and healthy timber industry.

“We, along with TFW (Timber Fish Wildlife Agreement) partners, have a lot to celebrate,” says Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. “In those 20 years we have been able to show what can happen when diverse stakeholders come together and realize that they might have differences, but they have much more in common than the differences that separate them.”

The Washington Forest Protection Association is a trade association representing private forest landowners in Washington State. Members are large and small companies, individuals and families who grow, harvest and regrow trees on about 4 million acres.