Timber practices need collaboration and science, not knee-jerk decisions

When I joined the Legislature in 1983, like many Democrats from Seattle at the time, I thought that the timber industry was bad for the state. This turned out to be the knee-jerk response of a relatively young man with a lot to learn.

I knew little of the value that the timber industry brought to rural communities across the state as Washington’s second-largest manufacturing sector. I knew little of forest owners’ respect for the environment that would lead years later to one of the strictest and most innovative set of forestry regulations in the world.

As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter put it, “Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.”

I have thought of that Frankfurter quite often in recent weeks as I have followed the news of the tragic landslide in Oso and the attempts by some to place blame on the timber industry despite a lack of facts.

The disaster in Snohomish County is heartbreaking, but it should not lead to hasty changes in our forest management laws. We must retain our faith in science to determine the best course of action.

In Washington we have acted to make forest policy based on science, not political pressure or whim. The landmark Forests and Fish Law passed by the Legislature in 1999 established a science-based approach and received strong support from both Republicans and Democrats, including myself. Responsible voices in the timber industry, the environmental community, tribes and state and local government also added their support.

This law was one of the Legislature’s finest hours, where members agreed to rely on science rather than partisan politics to make policy. Washington citizens would be much more supportive of their elective officials if legislators used the Forest and Fish Law as a template for how to make law through cooperation, not confrontation.

In 2006, the federal government endorsed our state’s forestry regulations by approving a 50-year habitat conservation plan designed to protect all of Washington’s native fish, several species of amphibians and 60,000 miles of streams. The plan is the largest multispecies habitat conservation plan in the country.

Every timber harvest permit in the state is reviewed by the state Department of Natural Resources and must comply with Forests and Fish Law and the federal conservation plan.

One of the strengths of the Forests and Fish Law is the concept of adaptive management. The regulations are open to change based on the latest science. Through adaptive management, our state’s forest practice rules are evaluated on a monthly basis by a committee of federal, state and local regulators, along with environmental groups, forestry industry leaders and tribes.

When science dictates a change should be made in forest practices, this committee has the authority to make those important revisions. This is a unique way to ensure that the Forest and Fish Law remains relevant and doesn’t rely on the Legislature to constantly act to keep the forestry standards current. This same process is also being used to evaluate whether other regulations or new topographic mapping technology should be instituted after the Oso landslide.

The answers and appropriate steps forward will come from people working together based on the facts at hand, not knee-jerk political reactions.

Ken Jacobsen was a member of the Legislature in the 46th District, which includes North Seattle, for 28 years, including 14 years in the House and 14 years in the Senate. He served as the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources committee from 1999 to 2010.

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