By STEVE BROWN
The Washington Legislature will face a $2.6 billion budget deficit in its 2010 session, but state Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark says he will try to get the state to honor its commitment to small timberland owners.
Under the Forests and Fish law approved by the Legislature in 1999, the state agreed to purchase easements from small landowners to compensate them for riparian acreage placed under harvest restrictions to protect fish habitat.
"All landowners have to do buffers," Goldmark said. "Small landowners suffer disproportionate impacts. The easements -- in the form of 50-year leases -- allow that land to stay in forest. Most of the easement are around 50 percent of the value of the timber."
However, he said, the program wasn't funded during the 2009 legislative session, and there's an $8.44 million backlog of easements to be purchased from the landowners.
"This puts pressure on the Forests and Fish law. We want to keep it in effect, and not see the land converted to other uses.
"The integrity of the programs requires me to seek the funds," Goldmark said. "This is a good-faith effort on my part for the state to keep its commitment."
Rick Dunning, executive director of Washington Farm Forestry Association, said 78 small forestland owners are waiting for payment from the state. "That's the backlog left last summer when the state budget passed without any funding."
Dunning said he didn't know if more landowners have applied since then. "People are just frustrated," he said, "because there's no money."
The easement program has been underfunded since the law was first enacted, he said. Small landowners are under pressure with portions of their land taken out of production without compensation.
"Some are in real need of that money, because there's a lot of value in that land and timber," he said. "I don't know of a landowner who is currently converting."
Dunning said his organization proposes working with the state on a new formula, to reduce the buffer size and to include a small harvest.