Skagit farmers protest salmon recovery plan

Jim Cour; The Associated Press
The News Tribune


CONWAY, WA- Farmers in the Skagit Valley think they may be on their way to becoming an endangered species.

"All of a sudden, the fisheries people have decided that they want to control our tidegates and want to let salt water back into our drainage system," said Curtis Johnson of La Conner. "That would be the death knell of agriculture in Skagit County."

Johnson, president of the Mount Vernon-based Western Washington Agriculture Association, and John Roozen, its vice president, led a media tour Saturday to show off some of the county's most fertile farmlands from Fir Island to La Conner.

To save the declining chinook salmon population in Puget Sound, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife wants to replace old tidegates with new ones that would allow fish and salt water to enter drainage ditches on farmland throughout the county.

The farmers say the department's proposal would kill the agriculture industry in this rural county about an hour north of Seattle, bringing about its instant urbanization.

"This is the last productive agriculture valley in Puget Sound," said Roozen, who is involved in the multimillion dollar Washington Bulb Co. "The handwriting is on the wall. You can drive up the freeway and see that."

Fish and Wildlife Director Jeff Koenings, who accompanied the tour, thinks the issue can be solved.

"The Skagit is a tremendously important system for chinook," Koenings said. "It is the biggest chinook producer in the Puget Sound."

Chinook salmon in Puget Sound-area rivers have been designated as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act since March 1999.

Gov. Gary Locke has "taken the position that extinction is not an option," Koenings said. "He wants the salmon population rebuilt, but he also sees the value in farms, and so do we."

Koenings said he's optimistic a compromise can be reached.

"How do you provide access to sloughs and have a wetland that is influenced by salt water, when salt water could have an impact on the farmer's ability to till his fields?" Koenings asked. "So we have to figure out together how we can bring those two entities into some sort of compliance to each other so that we can farm and have fish at the same time."

About 85,000 acres are farmed in Skagit County, 30,000 of which are in the flood plain.

There are about 30 tidegates in the county, which the state wants to replace with a new self regulating type that would let salt water enter farmland drainage systems during high tides.

Farmers argue a way of life was at stake, pointing out that the Kent Valley was once dominated by agriculture, too.

"As soon as the farmers are gone from here because they can't make a living because somebody screwed up their drainage - as soon as that happens, you're going to have the Kent Valley here," Johnson said.

"This valley is putting several hundred million dollars into the economy," Roozen added.

Koenings said he was aware he wasn't the most popular person on the tour.


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