Voluntary program coordinates with local agricultural producers

By Marcy Stamper

Agricultural activities are often conducted in close proximity to wildlife habitat, wetlands, and areas prone to erosion. Now a plan to protect and enhance these critical areas near Okanogan County’s farmland — through voluntary actions — has been submitted to a state commission for review and public comment.

Washington developed the Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) six years ago but, even though Okanogan County was one of the first to sign on to the new approach, work on the plans was delayed until the state could fund planning efforts.

Once funding was available, the county elected to partner with the Okanogan Conservation District to develop a local plan. Okanogan County’s VSP work plan is intended to protect critical areas and promote the viability of agriculture. All participation is voluntary and farmers can withdraw at any time.

The plan recognizes agriculture as a centerpiece of the county’s communities and an asset in the protection of critical areas. It’s intended to promote flexibility for farmers in how they use and protect the land. It also aims to preserve the county’s ecological diversity and the natural resources that support it. The plan includes a process for monitoring and status reports to measure its effectiveness.

According to the draft plan, when properly managed, critical areas can preserve water quality, hydrology, soil and habitat. Wetlands, rivers and streams can filter sediment and excess nutrients and recharge aquifers, and healthy soils can reduce erosion. In conjunction with native landscapes, cropland can provide food and habitat for wildlife.

The voluntary program garnered support in the county in part because it allowed more local control. In many areas, the concept brought together groups that don’t always see eye-to-eye, according to the Washington State Conservation Commission, which is overseeing the overall program.

The group working on the county’s plan includes representatives of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau, the planning group for the Okanogan Watershed, the Okanogan County Cattleman’s Association, and individuals with expertise in conservation and land-use planning.

Twenty-seven of the state’s 39 counties opted to participate in VSP and 18 have already completed their plans. Okanogan, Ferry and Pend Oreille are among the counties still developing their plans.

Counties that didn’t opt into the stewardship program still have to protect farmland within critical areas, but instead need to include the protections in their critical areas ordinances, which come under the state’s Growth Management Act. Most of the counties that chose not to participate in VSP are large counties in western Washington, including King, Pierce and Whatcom.

After its review of the plan and public comments, the state conservation commission’s technical panel will most likely have recommendations for the next draft, according to Amy Martin, a conservation planner with the Okanogan Conservation District.

The comment period runs through Friday (July 6). The plan and additional information are available online at scc.wa.gov/vsp and at www.okanogancd.org/voluntary-stewardship.

Comments can be submitted to vsp@okanogancd.org.