This Earth Day, we need both public investment and private enterprise
On this 41st Earth Day, it is worth reflecting on the direction of environmental policy in Washington state.
Washingtonians are shaped by the environment we inhabit — the mountains, Puget Sound, the forested foothills and river valleys, the Columbia River and the vast farmlands of Eastern Washington. Across our state, across party lines, the environment is more than a plank in a platform. It defines our way of life.
Earth Day grew out of this state’s strong tradition of environmental stewardship. Its founder, Denis Hays, hailed from Camas in southwest Washington.
As our state and the Puget Sound region grow, so does the need to protect our environment. The environmental champions of our own generation will be creative leaders who identify ways to promote economic progress and environmental sustainability at the same time. They will work to protect our water, land and air while strengthening communities, not rule-making agencies.
First, we need to keep our rivers, lakes and Puget Sound clean. Clean water legislation this session included restrictions on phosphorus in fertilizer and bans on coal-based tar sealants and copper-containing boat paint. This regulatory approach may do some good for our waterways, but it will take more than laws to successfully address water pollution.
Stormwater runoff is the single most pressing environmental challenge in our region. Our systems are both costly and inadequate. The problems of nonpoint pollution and runoff from roads and highways require thoughtful solutions and incentives.
Many emerging ideas for dealing with stormwater are to be found at the Washington State University Research and Extension Center in Puyallup, a national leader in the study of stormwater mitigation technologies like pervious asphalt and rain gardens (soil arrangements that are designed to contain runoff). Puyallup is also home to a successful neighborhood rain garden experiment. In future legislative sessions, lawmakers should explore new incentives for stormwater mitigation.
Second, we must continue to conserve valuable land resources in our communities. As our region grows, we must find creative ways to save our working farmlands and forests and to develop new park lands. In many cases, public investment is necessary. The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program and other public conservation programs do much for our quality of life.
In other cases, the work of conservation is best handled through private ownership, from small landowners who wish to leave a legacy to the extraordinary forest work of Weyerhaeuser.
Our state can do more to help private property owners. Owners can be more effective caretakers of the land in a culture of voluntary stewardship than in a culture of administrative rule. Recent recommendations by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, adopted by the Legislature, will help communities and landowners solve problems and settle disputes in a more collaborative fashion.
Third, we need to decrease our use of fossil fuels. Whether you’re concerned about our carbon footprint or our dependence on foreign oil, it is worth moving toward alternative sources of energy. This year’s biggest environmental legislation was ratification of negotiations to ease our state off coal-fired electricity by 2025, to be replaced with natural gas.
In other instances of energy policy, incentives may be preferable to plans. Policymakers are not always the best judges of energy solutions – witness the failed federal experiment in ethanol subsidies. It was private innovation that produced hybrid and electric vehicles.
How do we encourage the market further? Lawmakers would be wise to hold off on a new fee for drivers of electric cars. I voted against this fee in the House Transportation Committee because it seems it would be a small disincentive for the nascent electric vehicle industry.
Furthermore, the Washington Policy Center proposes a revenue-neutral carbon price as a way to roll back business taxes and stimulate clean technologies while acknowledging pollution in the cost of products.
This Earth Day, legislators are grappling with priorities. Yes, the protection of our water, land and air will require sustained public investment. More importantly, it will require creative policy leadership that values free enterprise, private property, voluntary collaboration and strong communities.
State Rep. Hans Zeiger represents the 25th Legislative District in the House.