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Long-sought habitat agreement needs money to work





By STEVE BROWN



Capital Press



OLYMPIA -- It took four years for farmers, counties and environmental groups to hammer out a working arrangement to protect critical habitats in Washington state, but without funding all the work on the Voluntary Stewardship Program will have gone for naught.



That's the message stakeholder representatives delivered to legislators during a Nov. 30 work session of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development.



Ron Shultz, policy director for the Washington State Conservation Commission, which oversees the operation of the stewardship program, said support hasn't been forthcoming from Washington, D.C.



"The feds are not rich either these days, so it's been a bit of a challenge," he said. "We discovered quickly that by going in and saying, 'Can I have money?' that's met with shields up and phasers on stun. They're not really interested in providing funds right away."



The program's funding committee also asked the governor to include $2.4 million in the 2013-2015 budget. That much will get a pilot program rolling in five of the 28 counties that have opted in. Shultz said that would mean $150,000 per county per year plus associated agency staff costs.



One of the provisions of the program is that the landowners receive grants to do habitat-restoration activities on their lands, Bill Robinson of the Nature Conservancy said.



Shultz explained later the activities are similar to projects funded by the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, such as restoring salmon habitat, riparian areas and wetlands.



"But the current system is haphazard," he said. "VSP would be more targeted. The counties work parcel by parcel to help address those issues."



Counties are not obligated to implement the Voluntary Stewardship Program until funding is provided, he added.



"This is a new way of doing things," Robinson told the legislators. "It brings landowners together for conservation -- away from a regulatory approach to a voluntary approach."



Eric Johnson, representing the Washington Association of Counties, said critical areas ordinances have long been a contentious issue in county governments. Skagit County, he said, spent $6 million to go all the way to the state Supreme Court to determine whether its CAO complies with the Growth Management Act.



He also emphasized a "sense of urgency" in funding the stewardship program.



"Twenty-eight counties are raring to go," he said. "If we don't do this, we're going to go back into the very divisive way that we've planned in the past."



John Stuhlmiller with the Washington State Farm Bureau, said the program, developed with the mediation of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, could be a model for the rest of the country, not just for agriculture but also for other environmental issues.



"July 2014 is the date where funding has to be received by the counties," he said. "It would be a tremendous shame to lose all this groundwork."



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