By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- A House committee has killed a bill seeking to change the process for converting farm ground to wetlands from an outright permitted use to a conditional use permit.
House Land Use Committee Chairman Brian Clem, D-Salem, said the committee will instead work on developing a task force to study the issue, a concept raised by Richard Whitman, Gov. John Kitzhaber's natural resources policy advisor.
In a hearing March 5, Whitman recommended the workgroup develop policy recommendations to bring to the 2014 Legislature.
Backed by the Oregon Farm Bureau, House Bill 2173 was designed to add transparency and opportunity for public comment to attempts to convert farm ground to wetlands.
Coquille Valley rancher and Farm Bureau member Sharon Waterman said HB2173 ultimately could scale back the rate of conversion of farm ground to wetlands.
"There is a need for a process, because (conversion to wetlands) changes the whole agricultural community in that area," Waterman said.
Waterman said she learned about a project to establish a wetland adjacent to her ranch through a public records request several months after the project was being discussed by state officials.
"We didn't even know what was going on in that section of the Coquille Valley," Waterman said.
"I'm not against wetlands," Waterman said, "but if this trend continues, especially in the Coquille Valley, of productive ag ground being converted to wetland, there will be a loss of food and fiber production, farmland, jobs and revenue to the state of Oregon."
The bill drew considerable opposition testimony from conservation groups who said its provisions would impede efforts to create and restore wetlands.
"I feel the bill is too broad and will negatively impact conservation work," said Ed May of Ducks Unlimited.
"I think House Bill 2173 is a bad idea for Oregon as well as for ranchers and farmers," said Mary Wahl, a sheep and timber rancher in Curry County. "It is putting barriers in the way of landowners who are willing to restore wetlands."
Whitman proposed the workgroup focus on a bigger issue of how conversion of farm ground to other uses is affecting agriculture in Oregon, both in the rate of conversion and its effect on an area's ability to sustain farm infrastructure and in regard to encroachment by nonfarm uses on farms.