By Luanne McGovern
The 86th session of the West Virginia Legislature held plenty of surprises until the last minute. For those of us following the bills concerning our public lands, it was a wild ride. At times it was hard to stay focused, given all the culture war issues being fought, and all the coal friendly legislation being pushed. But overall, this session was more positive than negative for public lands, and hopefully is the start of a trend—we can only hope! Here is a recap:
The Nail Biters: Several key bills went to the last day of the session, and the outcomes were overall favorable for public lands.
SB468 (Continuing Cabwaylingo State Forest Trail System) went through multiple committee meetings and amendments, and generated hundreds of emails and phone calls from concerned West Virginians. In the end, a compromise was reached—the Cabwaylingo State Park and Forest Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) trail system was made permanent, and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources can build connector ORV trails from the Hatfield-McCoy system to state parks and forests recreational facilities. But the Division of Natural Resources is “prohibited from establishing any additional ATV, ORV, or UTV trail systems within state parks and state forests.”
The final vote occurred at 2:30 p.m. on the last day of the session, and it was an astounding 94-4 in the House and 32-1 in the Senate—evidence of huge support to protect our state lands from future ORV expansion.
SB585 and SB739 (Forest Carbon Capture Agreements) were introduced and amended in various forms to tax, regulate, stop, and/or delay the ability of landowners to enter into private forest carbon capture contracts. Various arguments were presented throughout the session, for and against these agreements by multiple stakeholders. In the end, the Senate could not concur with the amendments to SB739 passed by the House, and the bill died on the last day. While this was a victory for private landowners, the topic is sure to be resurrected in the interims or next year.
HB3110 (Funding for the Office of Oil and Gas in the Department of Environmental Protection) was another closely watched bill that was finally passed on day 60. It will provide increased annual funding to hire more inspectors and properly manage oil and gas wells. The bill will double the Office of Oil and Gas funding, increasing the number of inspectors from ten to around 20. This is a positive step in the right direction (building on SB480 from last year) and hopefully can be improved even further next year.
The Big Shocker: Getting a per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) protection bill passed this year has been a top priority. HB3189 (PFAS) was introduced by a bipartisan group of delegates to provide the next steps for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to conduct follow-up studies and create action plans to address these forever chemicals at their source. Based on sampling in the last few years, there are over 130 public drinking water sources with PFAS levels over the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory limits. This legislation is vitally important to ensure clean drinking water for all West Virginians and passed overwhelmingly in both Houses.
Maybe Next Year? They say it takes three years to implement groundbreaking legislation, so we look forward to further progress on the following issues next year.
Community solar was a top priority for this year’s session. HB2159 and SB627 were both stopped in committee, the victims of the coal lobby. SB544 (Increasing power purchase agreement cap) was a step in the right direction, increasing the power purchase agreement cap from 25 kW to 50 kW for residential customers and from 500 kW to 1,000 kW for commercial customers. This will allow larger commercial solar installations to move forward.
Orphaned oil and gas wells were also a priority issue. SB109 and HB2852 were introduced to provide requirements for plugging non-producing wells. Both bills did not progress out of committee.
Passed with Little Drama: Quite a few bills impacting public lands quietly made their way through the legislative process. Many of these have been discussed in previous issues of The Highlands Voice.
- SB4: Creating Adopt-A-Trail volunteer programs for public land under DNR jurisdiction.
- SB143: Relating to Adopt-A-Stream Program
- HB2062: Establish rules and regulations for e-bikes in West Virginia that more closely comport to federal law.e
- SB162: Authorizing director of the Division of Natural Resources to lease state-owned pore spaces in certain areas for carbon sequestration.
- HB3147: To create the Upper Ohio Valley Trail Network.
- HB3328: Authorizing the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority to contract to build and maintain trails on privately owned property.
One to Watch Again Next Year: Senator Mark Maynard (R-Wayne) again introduced his bill to “Establish resident and nonresident wildlife viewing stamps.” This bill, SB689, would open any gated public road to ORV traffic under the guise of “wildlife viewing.” The bill went nowhere, again, but he will be sure to bring it back around next year, along with other thinly veiled attempts to open public lands up to vehicular traffic.
But none of this happened in a vacuum.
Thank you to all West Virginia Highlands Conservancy members and friends that contacted their legislators throughout the session to make our collective voices heard. It would not have been possible without you! Thanks also to the West Virginia Environmental Council, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, West Virginians for Public Lands and many other aligned organizations for their help and support.
See you at the interims!