Washington bill likens salmon to 4th branch of government

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Washington state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, listens to testimony Jan. 27 in Olympia on a bill she introduced to make salmon recovery part of the state’s Growth Management Act.

OLYMPIA — Tribal-treaty rights make salmon akin to a fourth branch of government in Washington, and fish recovery should guide farming near water, and rural and economic development, according to a bill introduced by Democratic state Rep. Debra Lekanoff.

Lekanoff said builders, cities and counties should follow federal court decisions that guaranteed Western Washington tribes access to fish and that ordered the state to remove culverts that block spawning grounds.

“We are not looking to hinder growth,” said Lekanoff, who represents portions of Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties in northwest Washington and is also the government affairs director for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

“We’re looking to be able to work with those builders, work with those cities and counties and to do it in a manner that adheres to the Boldt decision and adheres to the culvert decision,” she said.

The 1974 Boldt decision awarded treaty tribes 50% of the annual fish harvest. The state is under a federal court order to remove hundreds of fish-impeding culverts. The Boldt decision and culvert court order stem from a long-running lawsuit between the state and federal government over the scope of treaties signed in 1854 and 1855.

Lekanoff’s proposal, House Bill 2549, would amend the state’s Growth Management Act and make salmon recovery a priority for local governments. Any harm to fish caused by development would have to be outweighed by fish projects, according to the bill.

The standard — called “net ecological benefit” — would go a step beyond requirements to not hurt fish. The higher standard also would apply to the Voluntary Stewardship Program, a conservation initiative championed by the Washington Farm Bureau and embraced by some counties to help farmers preserve fish and wildlife habitat without being regulated off the land.

Tribes and environmental groups have endorsed Lekanoff’s bill. The Farm Bureau, Washington State Dairy Federation, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers and the Washington Potato and Onion Association formally opposed the bill at a House environment committee hearing Monday.

Farm Bureau director of government relations Tom Davis said the definition of “net ecological benefit” was too vague. “That frankly scares us to death,” he said.

The GMA requires local governments to plan for transportation, housing and industrial development, while curbing urban sprawl and preserving farmland. HB 2549 would add a “salmon and steelhead protection and recovery element.”

Local governments that help salmon won’t be as likely to be sued by tribes, according to the bill. Cities and counties would be obligated to remove fish barriers.

The bill also would direct the Department of Fish and Wildlife and tribes to set fish recovery goals for cities and counties.

A new state work group, led by the governor’s office, would review activities, including agriculture, in “riparian ecosystems.”

Supporters of the bill said the do-no-harm standard hasn’t been enough to bring back endangered fish runs. Critics said net ecological benefit would amount to an unconstitutional taking of property.


Posted By: Capital Press

Posted On: 1/28/20