New bill has Washington tribes, farmers divided over salmon protective zones

Jan 24, 2022, 10:44 AM | Updated: 11:26 am
salmon hatchery...
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Salmon and orca recovery bills are a major theme during this session of the Legislature in Washington state, but one bill to create salmon protection zones has communities divided.

House Bill 1838, also known as the Lorraine Loomis Act — named after a Swinomish Tribe member who was a salmon recovery advocate in the state — would set up salmon protection zones known as “riparian management zones” along rivers, streams, and other similar bodies of water that are home to migrating salmon.

The bill states that public and private property owners with land along the designated riparian protective zones will be responsible for protecting those zones, including planting trees and shrubbery to cool down the water temperature. The zones would cover 100 feet on either side of a river or stream in non-forested areas, and different amounts based on tree height in forested areas.

Land is exempt if it is a recreational area, if it is covered by buildings or roads, or if it is a small parcel that would lose more than half of its area to the salmon zone.

Salmon, orca bills to take center stage in Olympia this session

The bill drew so many people testifying that the hearing had to be spread out over two days.

Those in favor, like Lorraine Loomis’ own nephew, Swinomish Vice-Chair Jeremy Wilbur, said this bill is what Washington needs to restore the salmon, and by extension the orcas that rely on them for food. He explained that it is crucial to salmon health to shade waterways.

“The status quo is failing our salmon, failing our killer whales,” Wilbur said. “We have a crisis of over 2,000 miles of temperature-polluted salmon streams just in the Puget Sound. Warm stream temperatures facilitate disease and even kill salmon.”

Tribal members also pointed out that having the salmon taken from them through endangerment and eventual extinction effectively takes away their promised fishing rights.

“Tribes have property rights to the fish themselves,” said David Herrera with the Skokomish Tribe. “Those property rights really have been taken from all of the tribes.”

But proponents were clear that this was not just a tribal move. They said that all Washington residents share a part in promoting salmon recovery.

“This is not an Indian bill,” said Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe Vice-Chair Ron Allen. “We all have a responsibility to protect our environment.”

The bill, however, is earning quite a bit of blowback from farmers. Farmland and rivers tend to go hand in hand, as wetlands make for fertile soil. And many of the farmers whose land sits in what would become riparian zones said the move would devastate their farms.

“It would be the equivalent of saying, ‘I’m going to take less than 1% of your car from you — I’m going to take your key — and see if that is still viable,” said fifth-generation farmer Joe Zimmerman of Clark County.

Natalie Doelman of Elma, whose family also runs a farm, said the bill would put so much of their land out of production that they would go out of business.

“It would destroy my family farm and many other family operations, ruining the chances for next-generation farmers like me to come back and continue caring for the Earth,” she said.

The bill provides grants for some farmers in priority areas, which would give financial help with establishing the riparian zones. However, farmers testifying said it would not be nearly enough to cover the losses.

“We estimate House Bill 1838 would take approximately 30 to 40% of our best-producing land out of production,” said Glen Schorno, who owns Nisqually Springs Farm in Yelm. “We would be left with little alternative but to sell our farm.”

Opponents say it will also devastate the supply chain, when dairy products are suddenly not available because family farms are gone.

The bill must pass out of the House Rural Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee by next week to have a chance at becoming law this session.

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New bill has Washington tribes, farmers divided over salmon protective zones