Voluntary program settles 15-year dispute

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By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

A 15-year-old legal dispute between Skagit County, Wash., and the Swinomish Tribe over farmland riparian habitat has been resolved.

The state Growth Management Hearings Board has ruled that the county is protecting the habitat consistent with the Growth Management Act. The ruling was based on the county's enrollment in the state's new Voluntary Stewardship Program.

The law requires Washington counties to designate and protect environmentally "critical areas," including salmon-bearing streams. The tribe insisted that meant mandatory buffers hundreds of feet wide should be required along streams across the Skagit Valley. This would have taken out of production thousands of acres of farmland without any compensation for the farmers who own the land.

In 2007, the state Legislature imposed a "timeout" on the buffer litigation and directed the William D. Ruckelshaus Center to work on a statewide solution. In 2011, the Legislature adopted the group's recommendation and created the Voluntary Stewardship Program, which establishes a state-funded mechanism in each county enrolling in the program that will ensure streams are protected using voluntary measures.

The resolution process includes county governments, tribes, environmental groups and farmers.

Mike Shelby of the Western Washington Agricultural Association was one of seven members of the ag caucus at Ruckelshaus. He said the Voluntary Stewardship Program "allows us to implement riparian projects on a voluntary basis and currently will meet the requirements of the (Growth Management Act)."

Other disputes still remain, but with the resolution in Skagit County, "this takes one of the big ones off the table," he said.

The county's dispute with the tribe, which reached the Washington State Supreme Court, cost the county more than $5 million.

"This is now about cooperation instead of litigation," Skagit County Commissioner Sharon Dillon said.

The county's enrollment in the stewardship program leaves in place existing critical area protections. Farmers must still comply with the county's Watercourse Protection Measures, which restrict livestock access to streams and require farmers to manage pastureland to avoid sediment runoff.

"Skagit County has been the catalyst for resolving this difficult issue on a statewide basis," County Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt said. "As I see it, if we work together and stay positive, we can safeguard Skagit County's agricultural economy, at the same time permanently protecting the streamside habitat that matters most for salmon."

After conferring with local tribes, environmental groups and the agricultural community, Skagit County enrolled in the Voluntary Stewardship Program in December. Since then, 27 other Washington counties have followed suit.

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