Gov. Jay Inslee has signed legislation sponsored by Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D-Bellingham) to improve habitat for endangered species and help keep working forests from potential liability under the federal Endangered Species Act.

SB 5390 fixes a perverse incentive in the Endangered Species Act. When endangered species are found on private lands, often the owners of those lands are faced with restrictions to protect those species. That means some landowners may try to preemptively avoid creating habitat for endangered species. SB 5390 authorizes the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to work with landowners and the federal fish and wildlife services to develop voluntary “safe harbor” agreements. These safe harbor agreements allow landowners 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.

“We can protect our working forests and the jobs that depend on them, and our endangered species. It’s not an either-or — it’s both,” said Shewmake. “The ‘safe harbor’ agreements authorized in this bill mean landowners can do the right thing to protect the animals who live in their forests and create high-quality habitat.”

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 goes into effect on July 23.