Net Ecological Gain report highlights need for bold conservation policy to restore habitat and recover species

With support from the Washington State Academy of Sciences and recommendations from interviews and roundtables with more than thirty experts in government, industry, civic and environmental organizations, and Native American tribes, WDFW has released a new report to the State Legislature on a Net Ecological Gain standard and existing No Net Loss standards.

The full report is available at: wdfw.wa.gov/publications/02357

During the 2022 Legislative session — through the proviso contained within Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5092 — the Washington State Legislature directed the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to investigate a pathway for incorporating a Net Ecological Gain (NEG) standard into state law with the goal of improving endangered species recovery and ecological health statewide.

WDFW assessed opportunities for incorporating NEG into existing state law through a mix of research and engagement, with support from consultants and review and scientific input from a committee of the Washington State Academy of Sciences.

WDFW’s Net Ecological Gain Standard Proviso Summary Report has been delivered to the Legislature and is now available online.

Need for bold polices

In our work to preserve, protect, and perpetuate Washington’s fish, wildlife, and ecosystems, we see firsthand the need for bold polices that promote the rapid restoration of watersheds, wetlands, and other natural environments if we are to have a chance to recover threatened species. And, equally important, to prevent further declines and state or federal endangered species listings.

In the face of such challenges, consulted experts largely agree that adopting Net Ecological Gain standards has merit and is an important step forward in advancing environmental protection in Washington state. However, NEG must build from the foundation of existing environmental policy in the state.

Washington currently has a No Net Loss (NNL) policy for development involving shorelines, wetlands, and certain other critical habitats. Despite significant investments in the recovery of salmon and other fish and wildlife species, scientific evidence of continued ecosystem decline in Washington indicates that NNL polices are not working or are not going far enough to protect our state’s rich natural heritage.

In advancing NEG standards, the state must simultaneously address these issues and others tied to NNL. The Legislature must also identify a clear scope of NEG application, namely whether standards will apply to both private and public properties. Public projects should contribute to a higher environmental standard when conducting the public’s business. If we are serious about restoring species such as Chinook salmon, Southern Resident orca whales, and sharp-tailed grouse, we should be investing in ecosystem restoration through each public works project, big or small.

We must protect what we currently have and restore ecological and watershed functions — through increased investments and actions at a greater scale and pace — if salmon and other threatened species are to have a chance for recovery in Washington, especially in the face of climate change and continued human population growth.

Recovery of Pacific Northwest icons requires restoration at scale, and as this report indicates, Net Ecological Gain is one powerful tool for doing so. To be successful, this will require cooperation, innovation, increased investments, and bold leadership from our elected leaders, tribes, stakeholders, and local communities.

Recommendations and Next Steps

While NEG standards are not currently being pursued by WDFW as agency-request legislation, the report highlights the need for bold conservation policy to restore habitat and recover threatened fish and wildlife species.

In coordination with Washington State Academy of Sciences, the report includes an updated definition of NEG as:

Ecological functions and values, that support biodiversity and resiliency of native plant, animal and fungi species, water quality and quantity, air quality, and food security for all species, are improved over current conditions, at a cumulative scale that can be incrementally implemented through site-specific actions, with any short-term loss of those functions and values being more than offset by overall ecological gains.

The report also features detailed recommendations regarding ways to implement NEG and improve existing NNL standards, as well as suggested next steps for ecological preservation standards in Washington state that WDFW is pursuing, including:

1. Create an oversight body to develop metrics, monitoring, and reporting for future standards.

2. Create NEG as a “voluntary planning element” under the state’s Growth Management Act to encourage a few counties to partner with the organizing body to develop and implement the initial NEG program along with NNL improvements.

3. Confirm that NEG applies to public projects only, while encouraging voluntary gains on private properties.

4. Increase funding incentives for participating local governments (staff capacity, planning funding, and public project funding).

5. Develop a reporting framework for the oversight body to report progress to the governor and legislature.

Considering the ecological decline already documented in Washington and the expected advancement of this decline in the face of climate change, expediently advancing these protection standards is now more important than ever.

Click here to review the full Net Ecological Gain Standard Proviso Summary Report

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.