Published: December 2022
During the 2021 Legislative session—through the proviso contained within Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5092—the Washington 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. In summer and fall of 2022, WDFW assessed opportunities for incorporating NEG legislation into existing state law through a mix of secondary research and engagement, with support from consultants and review and scientific input from the Washington State Academy of Sciences (WSAS).
Key project initiatives included:
- Review and expansion of the NEG definition and other key findings from the WSAS 2022 report, “Report on Net Ecological Gain” (see full report in Appendix D. WSAS Report on Net Ecological Gain), which led to the following updated definition:
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.
- Review and analysis of precedent set by other communities based on national and international NEG research papers and legislation.
- Analysis of existing Washington State environmental, development, or land use law or rule where the existing standard—namely, No Net Loss (NNL)—is less protective of ecological integrity than the standard of Net Ecological Gain, to understand how these standards have operated within the state.
- Robust engagement with local governments, state agencies, federally recognized tribes, and key stakeholder groups across Washington State (henceforth referred to as “experts”). Engagement included a mix of one-on-one and small group interviews as well as large roundtable discussions.
Through these tasks, the project team identified several key themes for the legislature to consider when exploring the integration of NEG into Washington state policy. Key considerations, summarized throughout this report and detailed in Key Themes from Engagement below, include the following:
- Experts largely agree that adopting NEG 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.
- Evidence of ecosystem decline in Washington indicates that NNL is not working. However, the true impact of existing NNL standards is largely unknown. A pervasive lack of funding and resources available to state agencies and local jurisdictions has led to inconsistent implementation and enforcement of NNL standards and little to no monitoring and reporting of its impacts. Furthermore, there is not a consistent baseline of current conditions from which to monitor progress. In advancing NEG standards, the state must simultaneously address these issues and others tied to NNL.
- The legislature must identify a clear scope of NEG application, namely whether standards will apply to both private and public properties or just to public projects.1
- For NEG and NNL to succeed, the state needs to significantly expand funding and resources available to implementers. Stronger mandates, if insufficiently funded, will have little to no impact on rolling back ecological degradation and preserving the state’s valuable natural resources.
The project culminated in the development of the following recommendations, detailed in Chapter 3: Recommendations.
1This project primarily assessed NEG under the assumption that policy mandates would apply specifically to public projects and that private projects would continue to comply with a NNL standard. Experts both supported and disputed this stance through engagement and debate over the application of NEG persisted throughout the project. See Scope of Application of NEG legislation on Public and Private Projects for more details.