Chelan County is one of two counties in Washington State that are implementing a new program to promote environmental stewardship on farms.
Mike Kaputa, Chelan County Natural Resources Director, is encouraging fruit growers and other farmers to participate in the new Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP), rather than have environmental regulations forced on them.
The state’s Growth Management Act requires state and local governments to manage growth by identifying and protecting critical areas and natural resource lands, and regulating the use of those areas. For example, plans to build houses or commercial industry in or near critical areas would be subject to a review and permitting process.
Orchardists have felt little impact from the GMA, other than being unable to subdivide property into lots smaller than five to ten acres. Farming activities are not regulated under the GMA because they are either grandfathered in or exempted.
In 2007, after environmental groups filed lawsuits and lobbied to include agriculture in the regulations, the State Legislature asked the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, a collaborative effort of Washington State University and the University of Washington, to help resolve the conflict.
The center proposed the Voluntary Stewardship Program, a watershed-based, collaborative planning process that uses incentives to preserve the viability of agriculture while protecting environmentally critical areas.
Twenty-eight of Washington’s 39 counties plan to join the program. The Washington State Legislature has earmarked $249,000 to enable Chelan and Thurston counties to begin to implement the program this year. The two counties are developing work plans that include goals and benchmarks for protecting critical areas.
Critical areas include wetlands, riparian setbacks (along streams), geographically hazardous areas, such as steep slopes and areas with unstable soils, and conservation areas for fish and wildlife.
More state and federal funding is expected to become available to expand VSP to other counties.
Speaking at tree fruit meetings in Wenatchee this winter, Kaputa emphasized that if farming practices were not exempted from the GMA’s critical area regulations and had to follow county zoning and land use regulations, growers would need to obtain permits or variances from county planning departments and would have to go through the county hearing examiners to obtain them.
Activities requiring a permit might include planting trees, building roads, relocating wind machines, or clearing brush along a creek, for example.