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Friday, February 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

WALeg Day 25: Work ahead on wolf and wildfire bills

OLYMPIA –Two of the most contentious issues in rural Eastern Washington, wildfires and wolves, are generating demands for change and a stream of legislative proposals.

After a hearing on bills that directed at one or the other today, the chairman of the committee handling both issues said he'll try to work with sponsors to craft compromise legislation on each.

Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said he'll support some form of “good Samaritan” legislation that would allow landowners to fight fires without prior approval when they break out on nearby state land without getting prior approval. People trying to keep early fires from spreading shouldn’t face criminal or civil penalties, and the state shouldn’t be held liable if they are injured, he said.

Residents who fought parts of last summer’s Carlton Complex wildfire were critical of delays and poor decisions they believe the Department of Natural Resources made in the early days of those fires and said control should be passed to local officials.

“We’re quite capable of fighting fires. It’s passed on from generation to generation,”  said Vick Stokes, a rancher near Twisp who had 90 percent of the land he works burn. “We fought fire by ourselves for three days.”

Local people can come in more quickly to fight fires, said Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, who is sponsoring or co-sponsoring several bills to change wildfire policy. "We heard time and time again on these fires. 'We're on it. We're on it. We've got it handled.' Obviously that wasn't the case."

State officials said they are reviewing the response to last summer's wildfires and agreed protecting life and property in a fire is more important than worrying about resource protection. But any provision to allow residents to fight emerging fires should not include "backfires" which can get out of hand if the winds shift.

Efforts to improve cooperation and communication between the state Department of Natural Resources and local officials and residents could be part of an eventual package, Blake said

Crafting a single wolf bill from seven pending proposals could be trickier. Residents and officials from Northeast Washington counties said they need better tools to keep the growing number of wolves in their region from killing livestock while the rest of the state waits for the wolves to get re-established there. Wildlife and conservation groups said the current wolf management system should be allowed time to work.

“I believe we are making progress,” Bob Aegeter, a member of the Sierra Club who serves on the Wolf Advisory Group, said. “Now is not the time to try and micromanage” the recovery plan.

But Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart said he's been in constant contact with the state asking for help, and his constituents are getting fed up.

"They're willing to lynch me," McCart said. "Bive us some tools at the local level."

Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, has a proposal to capture wolves in Northeast Washington and relocate them in suitable areas in other parts of the state. The most suitable spot would be the Olympic Peninsula, which has less livestock and lowland areas where wolves could survive in the winter.

Blake, whose district covers much of the peninsula, doesn’t like that option and thinks another Kretz proposal to take Northeast Washington wolves of the state’s endangered species list, while leaving them on the list for the other areas until they migrate their naturally. But he doubts he can get much support for that from fellow Democrats on the committee, or in the full House.

State officials said they could work with Kretz on a regional “de-listing” but were concerned the bill excluded the public involvement of a State Environmental Protection Act review. Kretz said the issue has been well studied and discussed, and that process would add years to the decision.

Northeast Washington’s not going to wait until 2021. We’re going to do something,” he said. “When you see people having their lives destroyed, they’re not going to wait on bureaucratic processes.”

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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