The phrase best available science (BAS) is one with which most county elected officials are familiar. It is the basis for designating and regulating the protection of critical areas by local governments. It’s the backbone of the adaptive management process used to develop forest practices rules that regulate timber harvest. It’s even the standard for setting southern resident orca whale watching rules.
Counties must consider BAS when developing critical areas and shorelines policy and regulations. The requirement to utilize BAS is in the Growth Management Act (GMA). BAS is used so policies and rules for protecting ecosystems, species, and the environment are guided by scientific data rather than hearsay, anecdotal information, or nonexpert opinion.
It is widely believed that when developing environmental or technical policies and regulations, those informed by and based on BAS are superior to those not.
Washington administrative code guides what constitutes BAS. In determining BAS, counties must consider whether the source of information displays the characteristics of a valid scientific process, including peer review. Also, the methods used are clearly stated, replicable, and standardized in the pertinent scientific discipline, and the conclusions presented are reasonable and supported by other studies. Finally, whether the data have been analyzed using appropriate statistical or quantitative methods, whether the information is placed in proper context, and the assumptions, analytical techniques, and conclusions are well referenced.
However, the Governor is proposing a new law that disregards the long-standing guidance. Instead, he offers to determine BAS by designating it through the legislative process.
Governor’s request legislation, HB 1838 and SB 5727 would declare advice from WDFW published in 2020 as the BAS for local governments to use when developing regulations protecting critical areas and shorelines.
WDFW’s published guidance, Riparian Ecosystems, Volume 2: Management Recommendations (December 2020), sets forth a standard for determining the width of Riparian Management Zones (RMZ) based on a 200-year site potential tree height or other criteria outlined in the guidance and recommends the entire RMZ be protected to preserve and restore fully functioning riparian ecosystems. WDFW acknowledges that while their advice reflects WDFW’s mission to preserve, protect, and perpetuate wildlife and ecosystems, landowners and land managers often have to make decisions that balance the needs of humans along with considerations of fish and wildlife. Indeed, counties are required to balance various needs when adopting their comprehensive plans and development regulations, including all 13 goals of the GMA for most.
HB 1838 and SB 5727 propose a mandate that handpicks an outcome for all riparian regulations across the state, regardless of circumstances. Such a mandate leaves no room for scientific studies that may augment or contradict WDFW’s guidance.
Designating BAS through a political process significantly departs from past state practices. If HB 1838 and SB 5727 are passed, any belief that policy development requiring BAS occurs only after a rigorous and thorough review of all legitimate scientific information and opinion on the matter will be severely undermined.