Politics & Government

DNR chief seeks funds owed to timberland owners

OLYMPIA - After eliminating nearly 500 job positions at the state Department of Natural Resources in his first year in office, state Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark will approach the 2010 state Legislature with a modest proposal.

“You can’t be very ambitious in these difficult economic times,” Goldmark told The Olympian editorial board Wednesday. “We are only asking for emergency measures.”

The lands commissioner will ask the state Legislature to fund an $8.44 million backlog in easements to be purchased from small timberland owners facing harvest restrictions on their property to protect streamside habitat for fish.

The riparian easement program is part of the historic Forests and Fish law approved by the state Legislature in 1999.

But the easement program has been chronically underfunded, noted Rick Dunning, executive director of the Washington Farm Forestry Association. He said at least 78 small forestland owners are waiting for their payment from the state.

“This is a broken promise,” Dunning said. “The spirit of the law must be upheld.”

“We want to help the small forestland owners comply with Forests and Fish,” Goldmark said of his budget request, which is not in Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget proposal. “We don’t want them to convert their land to other uses.”

The biggest chunk of money requested by DNR in the 2010 supplemental budget is $12 million to pay the state’s share of the DNR cost of fighting wildfires in the 2009 fire season.

The state agency will also seek $1 million to complete a habitat conservation plan on its 2.6 million acres of aquatic lands to better protect salmon, orca whales and other endangered species, agency legislative liaison Heath Packard said.

The agency will push legislation to require property owners building in areas prone to wildfires to better fireproof their homes and property with such things as metal roofs and vegetation clearance zones near the homes.

In addition, DNR will seek authority to create an access fee for recreational use of state lands, a recommendation that grew out of a Sustainable Recreation Work Group formed by DNR.

One possibility would be creation of a multiple-agency access pass with other state natural resource agencies, Goldmark said.

Since taking office in January, Goldmark has presided over an agency bruised by declining timber sales revenues and job cuts. The work force, which includes 500 seasonal jobs, has been pared back by 114, and the total number of positions in the agency fell from 2,362 in January 2009 to 1,923 at year’s end.