Voluntary guidelines for protecting wetlands, wildlife habitat and other environmentally sensitive ground are now in place in the 27 Washington counties that opted into what’s billed as an incentive-based, farm-friendly option to the Growth Management Act.
The State Conservation Commission recently approved the last of the work plans submitted by counties. The plans are an alternative to county ordinances that could have imposed large, uniform vegetation buffers between farms and water.
Farmers can participate, or not, by conferring with conservation districts. Washington Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller said he hopes they will.
“This has the potential to provide a very long-lasting benefit to ag, while protecting the environment,” he said. “It could change the landscape forever.”
The Voluntary Stewardship Program has been about a dozen years in the making. It stems from the conflict that arose between agriculture and the 1990 GMA’s command that counties protect sensitive environmental areas.
Counties were required to adopt rules to comply with the law, and farmers in some counties faced losing the use of large chunks of their property to mandatory setbacks from water.
The Legislature in 2007 put a moratorium on new county restrictions and let farm groups, environmental organizations, counties and Native American tribes try to work out their differences. The talks led to lawmakers in 2011 giving counties the option of developing plans that seek to maintain or enhance agriculture, wetlands and habitat in their current condition. Twelve counties, despite urging from the Farm Bureau, opted to not participate.
The plans were years in the making. Instead of what farm groups deride as “big, dumb buffers,” the stewardship program relies on farmers working with conservation districts to protect watersheds.
The State Conservation Commission has presented a two-year, $9.9 million budget proposal to implement and monitor the plans.
“The real exciting part is these plans are truly non-regulatory,” Stuhlmiller said. “No farm can be forced to do anything.”
The voluntary program does not change other laws. If conditions degrade in a watershed, a county can ask state and federal agencies to crack down, according to state law.
The program, however, assures farmers that maintaining the environmental conditions that existed on July 22, 2011, are what’s expected of them.
“That is a big deal — to give ag that certainty,” Stuhlmiller said. “We’re going to show, ‘Hey, ag really does do good things.’ “
The counties that opted into the Voluntary Stewardship Program are: Adams, Asotin, Benton, Chelan, Columbia, Cowlitz, Douglas, Ferry, Franklin, Garfield, Grant, Grays Harbor, Kittitas, Lewis, Lincoln, Mason, Okanogan, Pacific, Pend Oreille, San Juan, Skagit, Spokane, Stevens, Thurston, Walla Walla, Whitman and Yakima.