Every two years, policy and budget wonks at Washington’s wildlife management agency draft a new strategic plan. This cycle is the equivalent of an institutional inhale and exhale, the metronome that underlies decisions and the dates on which budgets thrive. Or die.
For an agency like the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, that rhythm, tied to the state’s budget cycle, couldn’t be more removed from the needs and concerns of the natural world.
“When you consider climate change, when you consider human population growth in the state of Washington, when you consider all of these factors, are we really doing ourselves and the resources a service by cranking out these biennial strategic plans?” asked Steve Pozzanghera, WDFW’s regional director in Spokane in an interview earlier this year.
WDFW leaders have decided that they aren’t. Starting in 2020, WDFW will have a 25-year strategic plan.
This, it’s hoped, will allow the agency tasked with preserving and protecting wildlife to better respond and adapt to a changing climate and a growing human population.
To do that, a new position was created — the director of conservation policy. Jeff Davis, a longtime department employee, has been tasked with developing that 25-year plan. He started that work this year.
The public will be able to comment on the plan several times throughout the process, Davis said. The agency hopes to finalize it by 2020.
“Climate change will be sitting underneath the entire strategic plan,” Davis said. “We have to stop looking right at the end of the hood of the car and start looking at the highway ahead.”
Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission was briefed on the expanded vision at a commission meeting Sept. 13, Commissioner Kim Thorburn said.
At first, when WDFW Director Kelly Susewind said he wanted a 25-year plan, the commissioners were skeptical, she said.
“That’s sort of unusual for a strategic plan,” she said. “Especially when you’re dealing with natural resources. Kelly explained his thinking about it and we’re all very much behind him.”
With climate change and a growing population threatening Washington’s wildlife and habitat, now is an important time to plan ahead, Susewind argued to the commission.
“All of these threats to state fish and wildlife,” Thorburn said. “That was the point he made. If we don’t look ahead … how can we carry out this mandate?”
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Climate change models for the Pacific Northwest predict warmer winters and summers, less snowpack and increased forest fire. Those changes will, in turn, impact wildlife with some species, like deer and elk, thriving while others, like moose, trout and salmon, suffer.
For an agency tasked with preserving and perpetuating the state’s wildlife, anticipating those changes is key.
WDFW’s expanded focus represents a larger philosophical shift, Pozzanghera said. For WDFW to continue to be effective, people have to think of the agency as a “conservation agency” first.
Traditionally, WDFW has focused on managing hunting and fishing opportunities, Davis said. Now it must broaden its focus, looking more at habitat and proactive efforts.
“The strategic plan is the first step in the broadening of that effort,” Davis said.
That wider lens was clear when talking to Davis. He brought up, among many other things, affordable housing and urban green space as things WDFW should consider.
“We have a tremendous restoration opportunity in the cities,” he said. “We have to be smart about it, because affordable housing is a real conservation crisis for us. Especially in the Puget Sound. A lot of people have to hop on I-5 and drive three hours to a house they can afford.”
That could mean encouraging people to plant more greenery, supporting efforts to make housing affordable or urban planning and development that takes conservation into account. All issues that traditionally WDFW would not consider.
“As these urban growth areas continue to expand, it’s putting more pressure from a regulatory and restoration perspective on rural lands,” he said.
One potential problem with a 25-year plan, Thorburn said, is that it wouldn’t adapt to changing realities. For that reason, the plan will be reviewed every five years and updated as needed, Davis said.
Still, how it will look remains to be determined. Public input will help guide the decisions made over the next months.
“We’re actively listening to the public,” Davis said. “I don’t want to presuppose what needs to be done.”