Farmers help solve Skagit dispute

IN A COLUMN TODAY (article follows) IN THE SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER, STATE SEN. MARY Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, calls efforts by the Department of Fish & Wildlife to install self-regulating tide gates in the Skagit Valley, potentially flooding thousands of acres of fertile farmland with saltwater a "sordid take of government gone awry." Haugen argues that self-regulating tide gates, which would allow fish and saltwater to enter drainage ditches at high tide, is a way for the tribes and DFW to create "cheap salmon habitat taken from farmers without compensation." Haugen, who is sponsoring legislation to protect the existing system of tide gates and drainage ditches, applauded farmers for standing up to "the combined power of an entire state agency and full-time attorneys." In the long run, Haugen said, preserving agriculture in the valley "will prove much more salmon friendly than allowing the land to be turned into strip malls."

MEANWHILE, IN A COLUMN THAT RAN WITH HAUGEN'S (ABOVE), PAULA DEL Giudice, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Natural Resource Center in Seattle, argues that more estuary is needed for salmon rearing in the Skagit River delta. Although Giudice says available public land should be restored to estuary, "a modest amount of agricultural land ... also must be restored." Giudice says that federal and state salmon-recovery funds should be used to buy land from willing sellers.

Farmers help solve Skagit dispute

for Seattle Post-Intelligencer


I'm tired of hearing that Skagit Valley farmers aren't interested in protecting the valley's valuable Chinook salmon runs. Farms and fish can coexist in the valley without flooding some of the world's most fertile farmland with salt water and killing everything that grows there.

For anyone still unfamiliar with this sordid tale of government gone awry, let me explain.

Out-of-state fish biologists and attorneys were hired supposedly to decide what was best for the citizens of the Skagit Valley. Without looking at other ways to preserve the valley's salmon habitat, they decided to take 50-year-old state laws, reinterpret them, circumvent the Legislature and hold them over the heads of farmers.

Their weapon of choice: a proposal to remove the Skagit Valley's tide gates -- which act as a one-way valve to keep Puget Sound salt water out of fragile coastal farmland -- and replace them with self-regulating ones that allow water and salmon to flow into the valley's drainage ditches at high tide.

For the out-of-state biologists and attorneys, the plan is a great deal. The drainage system instantly becomes cheap salmon habitat taken from farmers without compensation. Using the enforcement power of the massive Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) and threats of tribal lawsuits, the biologists and attorneys have begun to muscle farmers out of their land.

Unfortunately for the farmers, the resulting salt damage would render their land forever useless for agriculture. Not only would the land be ruined, but the family farm -- the embodiment of four generations' sweat and toil -- would be lost.

At first it would appear that individual farmers couldn't possibly resist the combined power of an entire state agency, biologists and full-time attorneys. But Skagit farmers have stood together and have stood tall. They have hosted media tours of the fields so people could actually see what was happening. Even though the DFW pushed forward with its plans without public hearings, the public still found out that land supposedly protected for future generations was in danger of being lost permanently.

Salt water and farmland don't mix, but fish and farmland do -- as they have for more than 100 years. A private farmer who's familiar with the sensitivity of the land is much more willing and able to accommodate salmon habitat. But if a farmer can't make a living, the farmer will be forced to sell to a developer much less concerned about the salmon's best interests.

Instead of barns and fields, the salmon would live next door to warehouses and parking lots. I've seen what has happened to the farms in the Kent and Puyallup valleys, and we can't allow our proud agricultural heritage to suffer the same fate.

The farming community has put up with years of meetings with the DFW and tribes. It's time for action, which is why I've been working with farmers this session to pass legislation that helps preserve the Skagit Valley's agricultural base and gives more authority to the locals.

My proposals are included in House Bill 1418, which easily passed the Legislature and now awaits the governor's signature. This legislation will:

Exclude existing agricultural tide gates from the state's definition of an "obstruction" that must be removed to allow better fish passage;

Force the state to remove a self-regulating tide gate if a landowner requests it;

Require a task force of state, county, agricultural and environmental representatives to decide how best to enhance intertidal salmon habitat in local areas without harming agricultural lands;

Direct the task force to develop a long-term proposal for salmon recovery and protection of agricultural lands and make annual reports to the DFW, and

Require any salmon-enhancement plan developed by the task force to be implemented on public land first.

In the long run, maintaining this area's agricultural use will prove much more salmon-friendly than allowing the land to be turned into strip malls. It will also allow our two most precious natural resources -- fish and farmland -- to live peacefully together for generations to come.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, represents Island County and portions of Skagit and Snohomish counties, including the cities of La Conner, Oak Harbor and Stanwood.


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