By JAMES GOCHÃ©
For the Capital Press
Public feedback at the April 18 hearing conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about its proposed listing of the pocket gopher and several other species and about Thurston County's proposed habitat conservation plan sent a consistent message to federal regulators and our county commissioners.
The message was that 1) successful preservation relies on retaining our "working lands" because they preserve open space, create habitat and reduce urban sprawl, and, 2) the rules being proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the county are taking us in the opposite direction.
Those testifying emphasized that if we are serious about keeping our "working lands" working, we have to also support those who do the work. This means encouraging farmers to continue farming by reforming the regulation and taxation of agriculture so that they can realize a reasonable return on their investment of time and money.
The public's message was that the county's spiraling regulations, increasing fees, and vague permit requirements are damaging our local agricultural economy and destroying local farms.
Add to this the new restrictions on agriculture, such as limited farming activity to only the winter months -- Nov. 1-March 28 -- which the Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing and the result will be a non-working rural landscape, degraded property values and diminished tax base. This is simply not the way to go.
Working farms provide a diverse and healthy habitat for the species proposed for listing as well as the rest of our South Puget Sound fauna. Farmers are good stewards of the land and have shown that they are willing to work in partnership with conservationists to maintain both the productivity and environmental quality of our working lands. Some public agencies are successfully supporting these efforts, notably USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Thurston Conservation District, Washington State University Extension and the Port of Olympia.
Therefore, a better approach is for the Fish and Wildlife Service to acknowledge that agriculture supports preservation of the species that it proposes to list and exempt it from federal restrictions. At the same time, Thurston County must reform its local regulations and its interpretation of state law so that it supports local farmers and keeps working lands working.
Otherwise, these public agencies will be destroying the habitat of the very species that they are trying to protect -- as well as the local farms that provide wholesome food for our families.
James GochÃ© is a local farmer and a Thurston County Farm Bureau board member. He and his family operate Friendly Grove Farm north of Olympia, Wash.