Opinion

Ecology’s wetlands guidance has proven, practical track record | Opinion

By GORDON WHITE

While San Juan County works to update its critical areas ordinance, it’s time to set the record straight.

The July 30 SanJuanJournal.com, “Experts: County should focus regulatory energies on upland areas rather than shorelines,” and a recent letter to the editor were misleading regarding the Department of Ecology’s role in developing and providing wetlands guidance to local governments and the legitimacy of the agency’s scientific research.

The state Growth Management Act, amended in 1995, requires the state’s 320 cities and counties to base their regulations for protecting five types of environmentally-sensitive areas including wetlands and fish and wildlife habitat on “best available science.”

Local governments and the state Department of Commerce implement the GMA, not Ecology. Ecology, however, has expertise in managing and protecting wetlands. We knew most local governments didn’t have the resources to develop a science-based standard for protecting wetlands. To help local governments meet GMA requirements without reinventing the wheel, Ecology got a federal grant in 2002 and spent three years crafting wetlands guidance. We scanned over 15,000 scientific articles and summarized another 1,000 related to protecting and managing wetlands.

Our guidance underwent the most complete, rigorous review of any wetlands-related documents produced for Washington. Our guidance documents were reviewed by independent peer-reviewers from different scientific disciplines. Our drafts were available for public review and comment. We prepared written responses to every comment we received. Claims we withheld information are false. Ecology must follow copyright laws for information we used and we found legal ways to make it available.

Ecology has provided training on wetland science to more than 1,500 people from local, state, federal and tribal governments and business. Over 100 local jurisdictions have already based their wetland ordinances on our guidance. Growth Management Hearings Boards have upheld our guidance as best available wetland science.

Even though local governments are not required to adopt our guidance documents, under GMA they do have to include best available science when adopting critical areas ordinances. We support cities and counties who develop their own science-based wetlands guidance. Island County did this and Ecology helped defend it when a local environmental group appealed its ordinance. We think it’s no surprise that after all of Island County’s extensive independent work, its wetland rating and buffer system nearly mirrors Ecology’s.

Wetland buffers often are controversial when local governments seek to adopt critical areas ordinances. We agree generic “one size fits all” buffers are inappropriate for San Juan County or anywhere else in the state. Our guidance recommends different buffer widths based on individual factors, including narrower buffers for rural land uses than urban ones. These recommendations give landowners flexibility to use their property and still protect the resource.

Although we don’t implement GMA, Ecology does approve local land-use regulations in marine shorelines under the 1972 voter-approved Shoreline Management Act. San Juan County will soon be working on its locally tailored piece of the statewide shoreline master program. Under SMA, the program will require protection of critical shoreline areas equal to or greater than GMA requirements.

Gordon White is program manager for the Washington Department of Ecology’s Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program. He oversees statewide activities to help communities manage their shorelands and wetlands resources.

More information about Ecology’s science-based wetlands guidance is available HERE

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