By STEVE BROWN
With two-thirds of Washington's counties taking part in a new Voluntary Stewardship Program, the next step is obtaining funding for it, according to the state Conservation Commission.
Participating counties can protect habitat in areas used for agriculture through the voluntary program rather than through the regulatory requirements of the state Growth Management Act.
Ron Shultz, director of policy and intergovernmental relations at the State Conservation Commission, said 26 of the 39 counties signed up.
"Less than all counties is OK," he said. Most urban counties around the Puget Sound recently updated their Critical Areas Ordinances and did not opt in.
"But rural counties saw the value of promoting multiple practices" through the stewardship program, he said.
Now that the signup is completed, "we redouble our efforts to get funding and to develop policies to implement the program," he said.
Shultz said the program has no state funding but the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and Environmental Protection Agency will be asked to support it. He estimated it will cost $150,000 per county "to get things up and running."
Farmers, environmental groups and county representatives worked with the William D. Ruckelshaus Center to devise the program under the mandate of Senate Bill 5248, which was approved in 2007.
The center, a joint effort of Washington's two research universities, is dedicated to assisting public, private, tribal, nonprofit and other community leaders in their efforts to build consensus and resolve conflicts around difficult public policy issues.
The process took a long time, he said, but "the time spent was well worth it. ... After a while people really began to listen to one another."