Lands commissioner seeks to raise logging fees
The state Public Lands Commissioner wants to increase the current $50 fee for harvesting timber on private lands, saying the money is needed to make up for budget cuts that have hampered enforcement of state forestry rules.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Washington state has a one-size-fits-all fee for harvesting from timber lands. Whether landowners propose to cut one acre, or up to 240 acres, they pay $50.
Peter Goldmark, the state Public Lands Commissioner, wants to increase these fees and use the money to avert what he says are "devastating" cuts to the budget for enforcing state forestry laws.
Goldmark's proposal comes as a recently released audit indicates that logging rules intended to protect streams often are not followed during logging operations. The report recommended an increase in staff visits before harvests.
"We have to have enough staff to make sure that we are observing forest practices, and noting where they [landowners] are in compliance, and where they are not," Goldmark said. "A $50 fee is a very low fee in the current environment."
This is part of a broader push by state natural-resource agencies to squeeze more money out of constituencies ranging from sport fisherman to state-park users. For example, lawmakers are considering a bill that would make park users pay $30 for a one-year pass. The higher user fees are intended to fill in a portion of proposed budget cuts as the state deals with a multibillion-dollar shortfall in the general fund.
Under the budget proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, general-fund money for enforcing state forest-practices rules would shrink by about 20 percent, or $2.23 million, in the second year of the biennium.
Goldmark says he is in discussions with Gregoire about raising the fees, but he declined to say how high he thinks they should go. Any fee increase must be approved by the state Legislature.
A coalition of environmental groups says that natural-resource agencies already have been pared back and that resource industries should pay a "fair share" for those services.
"Everything we are about this session is to stop the bleeding, and the only way to do that is to come up with constructive fee proposals," Clifford Traisman, a lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters and the Washington Environmental Council.
One proposal would be for the landowners to pay a sliding scale for logging that would range up to $500 for the largest and most complicated harvest. The state now charges a $500 fee only when the land is scheduled for conversion from forestry to another use.
"The current fee system is an unwise corporate subsidy and a bad deal for our fish and wildlife," said Peter Goldman, director of the nonprofit Washington Forest Law Center.
Timber-industry officials note the fees are only part of the money that logging activity pays into state coffers. Even in a depressed year such as 2009 when overall harvest levels fell to the lowest level since 1904, the industry generated some $75 million in business and occupation, timber excise and property taxes, according to statistics compiled by the Washington Forest Protection Association. That compares with an average of about $246,000 that the industry paid annually in harvest fees for lands that stayed in timber.
"We're producing tax revenue to the state that is more than sufficient to fund the forest-practices act already," said Kevin Godbout, Weyerhaeuser's director of regulatory affairs. The Legislature chooses to take that money, through the appropriations process, and put it into different programs, he said. "That's a policy choice."
Timber-industry officials seek to tie any fee increases to other steps that would streamline the regulatory and permitting process. For example, a tract of timber land is approved for harvest for a two-year period now. Some industry officials propose that be extended to five years.
"We have said, 'Let's look at finding some administrative efficiencies before we look at automatically raising fees,' " said Cindy Mitchell, of the state Forest Protection Association, which represents 50 large landowners who own 20 percent of the state's forestry lands.
"From my perspective, the forest and fish process [that regulates logging] has gotten way too bureaucratic, and I'm not sure the state can afford it," said Steve Vincent, of the Washington Farm Forestry Association, which represents small forest landowners.
The state harvest rules were rewritten more than a decade ago in a landmark effort to improve protection for water quality, fish and other natural resources. The rules include requirements that varying amounts of trees be left alongside fish-bearing streams. A recently released audit from the 2008-2009 period indicated that these rules often are not followed.
The audit found that 38 percent of activities taking place near streams and wetlands on smaller parcels of less than 20 acres were not in compliance.
The audit also found that a third of fish-bearing streams checked in the audit were misidentified and may not have received the required protection.
"It is essential that forestry follow the rules. This report shows that we are not where we want to be," Goldmark said.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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