OLYMPIA — Farmers and ranchers who rent land from the Washington Department of Natural Resources would be guaranteed compensation if their leases were canceled, according to legislation supported by the department and farm groups.
House Bill 2498 sets out a formula for paying producers whose leases are terminated early. The bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima, told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Jan. 23 that reaching the agreement took lengthy negotiations.
"I've been jokingly saying we're going in come in here singing 'kumbaya,' and I'm happy to report, we are," he said.
DNR leases 1.1 million acres for grazing and crops. The leases typically are for 10 years. According to the department, it rarely cancels agricultural leases — a dozen since the 1990s — but it can if it finds a more profitable use for the land.
Early termination was an issue when DNR terminated the leases of several dryland wheat farmers in Benton County in 2016. The department planned to make the land more profitable with an irrigation project to water other crops.
The Legislature in 2017 passed a bill requiring DNR to give producers 180-day notice before canceling a lease.
However, the department resisted losing its authority to terminate leases.
Under HB 2498, DNR could still cancel leases with 180-day notice but would have to follow the formula for compensating the lease holder.
Ranchers would be paid the annual rent multiplied by six for each year their grazing lease was cut short.
For crops, the DNR would pay the expected net return for each year.
The bill also commits DNR to compensating producers if the termination of a lease causes them to be penalized for withdrawing from a natural resources conservation program. Producers also would be compensated for improvements they made to the land.
"After hearing concerns about this issue for a number of years, to see a resolution before us is quite heartwarming," Washington Farm Bureau director of government relations Tom Davis said.
DNR leasing division manager Duane Emmens said the department hopes compensation guarantees will make agricultural leases more attractive.
"People won't feel that they may have the potential of being out that investment if they are early terminated, so they're going to be willing to bid higher for those leases," he said.
DNR projects it would spend less than $50,000 a year on compensation.