GOLDENDALE, Wash. — Ranchers in Southcentral Washington say they were abused when the state Department of Natural Resources terminated their public land leases early to make way for solar farms.
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who heads the DNR, announced March 6 the first lease of state trust lands for solar power. DNR terminated leases with ranchers so it could lease 480 acres to Avangrid Renewables, of Portland, for 40 years for a 150-megawatt solar power project.
DNR had been leasing the land for $2 per acre per year for cattle grazing and is leasing it to Avangrid for $300 per acre per year, according to DNR. The money goes into the state’s Common School Trust for school construction across the state.
The Avangrid project is about 20 miles east of Goldendale. DNR also terminated leases on 640 acres west of Goldendale for another solar farm soon to go out for bid, said Dave West, a Goldendale rancher who does not lease land from the state. He said the state should compensate ranchers for loss of income when it terminates leases early.
“I see this issue as similar to tenant rights. As a landlord I can’t say to my tenant that ‘I’ve got someone willing to pay me more so here’s your 60-day notice to vacate,’” said state Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima.
Corry sponsored HB 1964, which requires the written consent of a lessee before DNR may terminate a lease for reasons other than default.
The House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee heard the bill Feb. 19 and passed it, 8-5, on Feb. 22. It’s now in the Appropriations Committee, where Corry doubts it will move.
Angus Brodie, DNR deputy supervisor for uplands, testified the bill could hinder DNR’s duty of finding highest and best use of land to generate revenue for schools.
“This bill protects lessees’ rights over interests of the trust. We will work to minimize impacts of early terminations,” Brodie said.
The Washington State School Directors Association also testified against the bill.
Corry said DNR doesn’t uniformly seek highest and best use of its lands across the state.
Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, also said DNR is selective in its application of higher and better use and has passed up opportunities.
Diana Carlen, representing the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, said lessees are not on a level playing field when there are no penalties or fees for DNR terminating a lease early.
The Washington Cattlemen’s Association also testified for the bill.
Written testimony from ranchers included that of Ann Fernandez, of Centerville, who said “extensive” work goes into building fencing, corrals, chutes and watering facilities on leased land.
“Six months of notice given and then 60 days to remove all improvements or lose them seems very little consideration for the rancher. How is he to recoup the losses?” she asked.
Jim Sizemore, a Klickitat County rancher, said there’s great competition for new grazing land and that the new lessee should have to buy out the cattlemen’s leases.
Kelly Kreps, a White Salmon rancher, wrote the state needs to generate as much income as possible from public lands but also needs to honor its contracts. He suggested DNR be required to give two to three years notice before terminating dryland farming and grazing leases, five to seven years on irrigated farmland and five to 15 on orchards and vineyards, plus reimbursement of infrastructure costs at a graduated rate, depending on how early the termination was.
Mercer Ranches, of Prosser, also wrote in support of HB 1964, noting it has leased about 640 acres from DNR for more than 40 years and has “invested heavily” in irrigation, equipment and employees to farm the land.