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Farmers faced with farmland tree planting as way to save salmon

For farmers evaluating Governor Inslee’s Salmon Recovery bill, the devil is in the details.

Details like what exactly constitutes a Riparian Management Zone and whether the riparian buffers proposed in the now withdrawn HB 1838 will not just target salmon-bearing streams and side channels but encompass delta farmland behind Skagit River dikes.

The million-dollar question: Inside those buffers, is farming permitted?

The bill is clear about the need to maintain and enhance natural resource industries like agriculture and to encourage the conservation of productive agricultural lands.

Its language about buffers is problematic, according to lobbyist Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests.

“As written, absolutely it would apply to the main stem and every tributary, every stream, every wetland and pond that flows into something that flows into something else,” said Hansen. “Also, the way it’s written implies that measurement for buffers would start at the edge of the flood plain.

“In places like Skagit and Chehalis, where the whole valley is flood plain, it would take out a massive amount of land.”

In a Jan. 25 letter to the House Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources Committee, the Skagit County Drainage and Ditch Consortium stated that if passed as written, HB 1838 would take over 11,000 acres of Skagit farmland out of productive use, damaging Skagit County’s agricultural economy and land base.

The bill provides $8.4 million to create 24 new positions in the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to set and enforce riparian buffers by mapping and identifying RMZs along salmon- and steelhead-bearing streams and rivers. Watersheds needing RMZs for salmon recovery and protection are prioritized.

Counties and cities are to include restoration and protection of RMZs in their comprehensive and capital facilities plans and development regulations.

Landowners of property adjacent to affected water bodies must establish, maintain and protect buffers or face a $10,000 a day penalty. DFW is to provide grant funding and cost-sharing offers to help landowners in priority watersheds cover 70% of their cost to establish and maintain riparian buffers for five years.

The offer must include part of the cost of removing the land from production.

Section 204 of the bill lists the kinds of properties adjacent to water that would be exempted from buffers. None of the exceptions applies to farmland near La Conner.

“For me, the problem is the combination of the term ‘flood plain’ and ‘waterways’,” said local dairy farmer Jason Vander Kooy. The Dike District 1 commissioner worries that buffers might be required along ditches that drain winter surface water and deliver irrigation water during the summer, if Skagit River flow is available.

Those ditches are not salmon-bearing and section 603 (32)(b) of the bill says that “fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas” do not include irrigation or drainage ditches maintained by an irrigation district or company.

Still, Vander Kooy worries that “the door is wide open to any kind of interpretation.”

“Every piece of legislation has one or two intended consequences and 30 to 40 unintended consequences,” said La Conner farmer Dave Hedlin.

“There’s always a fair bit of nervousness that you’re going to get swept up in those unintended consequences. On the other hand, this is a complex natural problem and it’s important to focus on moving in the right direction.”

Farming on the banks of Sullivan Slough east of La Conner was one reason the Hedlin family transitioned to organic farming. They manage their farm to protect the slough’s salmon-rearing habitat.

The Hedlins leave willows and cottonwoods on the toe of the water side of the dike. That’s good for salmon, but not so good for dike management. Beavers and muskrats working around tree roots create burrows that if connected can weaken the dike. A dike can “blow” if high winds push over a large tree and its rootball.

“We have to maintain our dike structures and keep the Town of La Conner dry, while still being aware of the whole picture,” said Hedlin.

Farming advocates cite two other concerns about HB 1838. First, agriculture interests and, specifically, the Department of Agriculture, were not included in developing the bill. Second, the bill appears to replace existing voluntary habitat programs.

Programs like the Skagit County Voluntary Stewardship Program, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and the Clean Samish Initiative have implemented many riparian and stream restoration projects and prompted the planting of miles of hedgerows on farms, without regulation.

“It’s frustrating that ag has put so much effort into this process and now the state just wants to sweep it under the rug and act like it never happened,” said Vander Kooy, who spent many hours getting the Skagit VSP off the ground and is the lone farmer on the Puget Sound Partnership’s Salmon Recovery Council.

“There isn’t a farmer in the valley who doesn’t remember when there were a lot of salmon in the river and wouldn’t want that back,” said Hedlin. “But I get very nervous whenever there is a one-size-fits-all idea.”

“I’m supportive, but my biggest fear is just that we’re gonna lose part of our farm and my grandkids still won’t have fish.”

This story was filed ahead of HB 1838 getting withdrawn by Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D-Bow), Feb. 4. It is no longer in the legislative process.


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