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County commissioners shape our future, literally

County commissioner elections don’t always generate the interest that a hotly contested race for mayor or state representative might. Yet county government actions are consequential: many decisions about criminal justice, housing, public health, and environmental protection fall to county government to resolve.

Land-use planning as a key county duty

Buried within what appear to be the sprawling responsibilities of county government is a critical one: land use planning. Land use planning at the county level governs uses of land outside incorporated cities and towns—determining the future of our built environments as well as the future of open space, forests, and shorelines. As we look ahead to an increasingly unstable climate and sea level rise, decisions we make about how to develop or preserve land matter.

Will Ecology notice and try to address the clashing contradiction between free market environmentalism and careful planning for the future?

Many of these consequential decisions lie in the hands of county commissioners. Tasked with land use planning, not all commissioners understand or agree with the need to plan for climate change reduction, mitigation, and adaptation. A way to see that locally is by looking at Shoreline Master Plans.

Plans must use best available science — except…

All 39 counties in our state must prepare Shoreline Master Plans to be reviewed and approved by the Department of Ecology based on established guidelines. Washington state requires counties to develop Shoreline Master Plans based on best available science. But the state doesn’t specifically require counties to incorporate the science of climate change or sea level rise into their plans.

The current Shoreline Management Plan Handbook states: The Shoreline Management Act (SMA) and the Shoreline Master Program (SMP) Guidelines contain no requirements for SMPs to address climate change or sea level rise. However, they require local jurisdictions to take into account scientific and technical information pertinent to shoreline management issues. The Guidelines require local governments to use “the most current, accurate and complete scientific and technical information available [WAC 173-26-201(2)(a)]. The Guidelines also encourage local governments to consult Ecology’s guidance for applicable new information on emerging topics such as sea level rise [WAC 173-26-090(1)].

Environmental science or “free market environmentalism”

Grays Harbor County commissioners elected not to address the topic of sea level rise in their Shoreline Master Plan. Neither does the Plan mention climate change. Instead, in the opening section, under a heading called “Best Management Practices,” this claim is made: “We need to encourage free market environmentalism as a solution to environmental issues. Markets and the protection of property rights act as a solution for solving many environmental issues.” This principle, attributed not to community members, but to the commission itself, comes with no supporting evidence or examples. What does advocacy of “free market environmentalism” really mean?

Property + markets + growth = improved environmental quality

Free market environmentalism is trumpeted by the Heartland Institute. In the 1990s, the Heartland Institute worked with Philip Morris to question the science linking second-hand smoke to health risks. A 2012 leak of Heartland Institute documents revealed their planned campaign, supported by the Charles G. Koch Foundation, to systematically attack the credibility of scientific findings that fossil fuel emissions endanger the long-term welfare of the planet.

The Heartland Institute website describes their stance on free market environmentalism like this: “Free-Market Environmentalism is an approach to environmental problems that focuses on improving environmental quality using property rights and markets.” The website also states: “Markets, property rights, and the rule of law are fundamental to economic growth, and economic growth is fundamental to improving environmental quality.”

The free market—opposition to climate initiatives and a carbon tax

Another proponent of free market environmentalism is ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC drafts model policies for conservative lawmakers, including one designed to guide state withdrawal from regional climate initiatives. Another model aims to help lawmakers craft a resolution opposing a carbon tax. Like Heartland, ALEC argues for free market environmentalism, declaring on their website that “technological innovation and free market incentives have allowed us to promote economic prosperity while improving environmental health, protecting wild lands, and conserving resources.” They cite no examples to support this claim.

The public comment period for the Grays Harbor County Shoreline Management Plan ended on December 3, 2018. The Quinault Indian Nation, whose reservation lands fall within the outline of Gray Harbor County, have joined with other Northwest treaty tribes to develop “a unified tribal habitat strategy” that “aims to preserve and restore the natural functions and connectivity of our river, marine and upland ecosystems, and to seek accountability for decisions on the use of our lands and waters.”

A NW tribal strategy for ecosystem health in the long term

Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, wrote in November, 2018, that this habitat strategy is based on “what we know is actually needed to achieve ecosystem health, not what we think is possible to achieve given current habitat conditions. It is not a retreat to the past, but a long-term vision for a future with healthy resources for everyone.”

The Department of Ecology will respond to Grays Harbor County’s proposed updates to the Shoreline Master Plan. Will Ecology notice and try to address the clashing contradiction between free market environmentalism and careful planning for the future? And whose vision of the future of our watery region will prevail—that of Heartland Institute or that of the Northwest treaty tribes?

Emily Lardner is a member of the WIP Publishing Committee and a resident of Grays Harbor County.

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