Local View: Ruling imperils region’s forestry industry

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There is growing concern across Southwest Washington over a recent decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that threw out 35 years of legal precedent and federal environmental policy. The decision declared that each drainage pipe or stormwater ditch on tens of thousands of miles of logging roads across the West should be treated as if it were a discharge from a factory or coal-burning plant.

This overreaching decision is a significant threat to Southwest Washington, our state’s “timber basket.” It would be so costly and legally risky for forest landowners, both large and small, that it could threaten the viability of the very forests the 9th Circuit claims to be protecting. And the new layer of federal permits would actually be less effective than our comprehensive, state-based forestry regulations that have worked well.

Democrats and Republicans across the region understand the 9th Circuit went too far. Bipartisan legislation recently introduced in Congress would restore long-standing Environmental Protection Agency policy and return the regulation of logging roads back to our comprehensive state-based system.

We very much appreciate Republican U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s leadership role in introducing this legislation. In our state delegation, Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is also a co-sponsor, and Democratic Reps. Norm Dicks and Rick Larsen recently wrote to the EPA expressing their concern over the 9th Circuit decision while supporting EPA’s current regulation.

Elected officials from both parties are concerned because they know the negative impact the ruling will have. Half of Washington is forested, with 9 million acres managed by state and private landowners. The forestry industry statewide supports more than 130,000 jobs, many of which are in rural communities with high unemployment rates.

In Southwest Washington, the impacts of this court ruling could be truly severe. The timber industry here contributes more than $550 million to our regional economy, generates more than $15 million in timber and property taxes and supports more than 25,000 people with timber industry jobs at family wages. That’s all at risk. Thousands of small forest landowners in this part of the state, already struggling, could be forced out of business.

Current system works

This is not about sacrificing the environmental protections that we hold dear. Our current regulatory system requires comprehensive forest management practices that take into account the health of entire watersheds. The state system is endorsed by the EPA because it works.

In Washington, runoff on logging roads is regulated by the 1999 Forests & Fish Law, one of the nation’s most comprehensive pieces of environmental legislation. This includes protection for stream bank integrity, erosion control, expanded stream buffers and an ongoing system to monitor water quality. To date, more than 3,400 barriers to fish passage have been removed, opening up 2,100 miles of fish habitat.

The 9th Circuit decision would push this common-sense approach aside in favor of a less effective set of federal regulations requiring thousands of narrowly focused discharge permits without regard for the overall condition of the ecosystem. It would be a case of losing sight of the forest for the trees.

And in the words of Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, an environmental champion who has sponsored the corrective legislation in the Senate, the court’s ruling will create regulatory chaos and “an epidemic of litigation and appeals” that will lead to paralysis rather than good forestry practices. Many forest landowners could be forced to sell their land to developers, a ruinous outcome that neither environmental groups nor timber companies want.

This is why we ask the public and elected officials to join us before it is too late in fighting this misguided decision that puts our economy — and our environment — at risk. Congress should move quickly to affirm the Clean Water Act’s long-standing treatment of forestry.

William Marre is general manager of the Northwest Division of Hancock Forest Management in Vancouver. Rick Dunning is a small forest landowner and executive director of the Washington Farm Forestry Association, which represents 10,000 small forest landowners across Washington State.