PAWS Magazine

Issue 36, Winter 1998

Controlling Growth and Conserving Habitat

by Steve Clagett

Washington’s early wilderness battles were successful in preserving a critical portion of the state’s fragile forest and river ecosystems. However, Washington’s wilderness areas fail to contain the full range of species diversity, habitat diversity, and landscape ecology required for healthy ecosystems. Washington’s public lands have serious shortcomings, the most glaring of which is the lack of lowland riparian and forest habitat, wetlands, winter range, and anadromous fish corridors connecting saltwater and spawning beds. For example, in the North Cascades region, less than 2% of the land base below 500 meters is in existing parks or wilderness.

These neglected habitats are primarily found among Washington’s private lands. They are granted protection under a patchwork of state and federal endangered species, wetlands, and shoreline laws. However, Washington does have one law that has broad impact on these critical habitats. That law is the Growth Management Act which specifically requires the protection of critical habitat and forest resources on private lands.

The Growth Management Act took two years to pass–1990 and 1991. In between those years, citizen initiative 547 ensured that legislators gave us a law that citizens could enforce, if need be. For the first time, the Growth Management Act makes comprehensive plans the supreme local land use document, not just a guide developers could change through a rezone. The Act requires all counties to designate critical areas that include habitat, wetlands, drinking water aquifers, and other environmentally sensitive areas, then to pass regulations to protect them. A similar requirement ensures that Washington keeps its commercially important farm, forest, and mineral lands from being developed. In the fastest growing areas, cities and counties must define "urban growth areas" in which future growth will be more compact than past sprawling patterns. Urban growth areas must contain greenbelts and open space. All lands not designated by the above monikers are rural lands where rural character must be preserved and no more one, two, or three-acre lot subdivisions may be platted.

Development in the rural/wilderness interface has already had a significant impact on wildlife corridors, salmon runs, and wild land fire management policies. Critical species, such as salmon, deer, and elk are dependent on lowland winter range and cannot survive without protection on private lands. Only by addressing the source of the problem—development patterns in private forest and rural lands—will we have a chance to preserve the habitats that our public lands lack.

This year, as in the past, the Growth Management Act is facing a strong challenge from those who benefit by being able to build wherever they please on land bought for speculation. 1000 Friends is working with local citizens to effectively deliver the message that, planning together, we can plot a better future than that which unmanaged speculative development would yield. Many of 1000 Friends’ most effective advocates for the Growth Management Act have been members and activists of groups concerned about the wildlife and habitat throughout the state. They are working on growth management issues because they recognize the connection between habitat, ecosystems, patterns of growth, and development.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife calls the Growth Management Act "the most significant piece of legislation affecting wildlife in Washington since the inception of the Game Department in 1933."

Contact the State Department of Community Trade & Economic Development’s Growth Management Division at (360) 753-2222, P.O. Box 48300, Olympia, WA 98504-8300 for more information on growth management. You can get involved in the work of 1000 Friends by joining the organization and/or a constituent group working to achieve sound city and county plans and regulations in its community. Contact 1000 Friends of Washington at (206) 343-0681,, for more information about these opportunities.

Steve Clagett is the Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Washington.

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