Stewardship Incentives (draft in composition)
It is clear that neglect of land, water, and air is affecting our collective security. Invasive infestations continue to spread, erosion exacerbates toxic stormwater that bio-accumulates up the food chain, and weather extremes are increasingly hard to ignore. With forests fragmented, eroded, diseased and fueled, the yearly forested area burned has doubled since 1980, with unusually devastating forest fires. Super-hot fires vaporize soil nutrients and seal the soil, prohibiting the regeneration of native species and increasing the likelihood of desertification and ecosystem collapse. With the uncertainty of climate change trending toward certainty, we are facing cascading degradation of environmental resources upon which we depend, not limited to food and wood supply, clean water, clean air, fish and wildlife.
Prevention is our best option, in fact our cheapest option if we can muster a collective response in a short time frame. Specifically, controlling invasive species, managing forests, and transitioning away from a carbon-based economy. Not acting on all fronts will lock us into irreversible consequences.
How, and will policymakers respond? Will they neglect high fuel loads that affect neighboring forest lands, or will they mandate forest management? Will they pass laws to ban the sale of ivy or glyphosate in a meaningless gesture? Mandates elicit political resistance, and nursery sales won't affect the rate of ivy's spread, already in motion. Banning glyphosate will only encourage farmers to switch to other herbicides still legal, and more toxic. Mandates, compromises and piecemeal regulations will be too little, too late.
We need to propose strategic reforms that address both ecological and economic concerns. Reforms should be founded on both our best science and best economics.
A Proposal for "Eco-assessments" and Property Tax Incentives
To begin, we need a way to measure ecological contributions on any property. That is, measure tree cover, stormwater management, wetland conservation, forest management, soil health, drain field health, invasive control, habitat quality, and other public benefits. Landowners wanting to participate in an incentive program should have the option to invite a certified "eco-assessor" to measure ecological benefits to receive an “eco-rating," plus suggestions to improve future ratings. This rating could be applied to reduce utility fees or property taxes, giving policy-makers tools to kick-start stewardship statewide.
The beauty of property tax breaks is that they are annual, so it's a repeating incentive making investments pay off. Incentives could be tweaked with "floating incentives" adjusted by counties to reflect different local needs.
A "Tax Shift"
The downside of property tax breaks is that it reduces government revenues, so any serious proposal needs to balance taxation (revenue neutrality) by means of a "tax shift."
This is a long shot, but it is a key reform to avoid climate catastrophe while maintaining a working economy. I am proposing that lawmakers make a deal with taxpayers: 1) offer "eco-assessment" property tax breaks in exchange for 2) carbon tax increases.
Economists show that a carbon tax shift doesn't harm the economy, and actually improves it. With a resilient citizenry and economy, Washington State is the best place to demonstrate the benefits of responsible taxation to stimulate ecological, technological, and economic improvements, meaning jobs.
If we don't reform our economy to respect natural limits, we could lose our region's health - biological, economic, and human. It won't happen tomorrow, but if we don't act soon, we could be - very likely will be - locked in to ecological decline if not ecological collapse. Eastern Washington forests could burn up, and Western Washington could eventually be entrenched with ungettable invasive infestations, primarily wall-to-wall ivy collapsing biodiversity. Let's act before it's too late.