The Washington State Senate unanimously passed legislation sponsored by Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D-Bellingham) to help working forests from potential liability under the federal Endangered Species Act. SB 5390 would authorize the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to work with landowners and the federal fish and wildlife services to develop voluntary “safe harbor” agreements that landowners could enter, wherein they would agree to enhance, restore, or maintain habitat benefiting endangered species and in exchange be protected from federal liability. DNR has previously negotiated such safe harbor agreements with the federal government to protect millions of acres of state-managed forestlands – this bill would extend that opportunity to private landowners as well.

“This is a win-win for our working forests and for endangered species,” said Shewmake. “The Endangered Species Act is a powerful conservation tool, but it contains a perverse incentive. If a landowner creates high-quality habitat, protected species like spotted owls might move in and now the landowner is faced with restrictions on how they can use the land. Landowners know that and may choose not to create habitat for fear of what happens if an endangered species uses it. The ‘safe harbor’ agreements authorized in this bill are a better way forward. Voluntary safe harbor agreements mean landowners can do the right thing to protect the animals who live in their forests.”

The northern spotted owl has been listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1990, and federal protections for the spotted owl have been highly controversial since then.

The bill now goes to the House for consideration.