Farmers want county to keep fighting buffers

Skagit Valley Herald

Skagit County, WA - 5/15/02 -The Skagit County commissioners asked local farmers for input on how to proceed with implementing buffers Tuesday night.

The farmers’ answer was unequivocal: Keep fighting against buffers.

“You have to,” said John Roozen, vice president of Washington Bulb Co. and a vocal opponent of farm buffers. “It’s finally to the point where we can’t go any farther.”

The county has about 80 days to create a new buffer plan to submit to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, said Jay Derr, a lawyer with Buck and Gordon, a Seattle firm hired by the county. That board has already rejected voluntary programs and buffers narrower than 75 feet, and a Thurston County judge last November ruled that 75 feet isn’t wide enough either.

Buffers are strips of vegetation installed along streams to protect fish habitat. Farmers with certain streams running through their land must sign paperwork declaring their plans to install buffers by May 24, although the county commissioners are expected to push that deadline to November next week.

Many farmers said they resent being told to stop using some of their land when other land uses — from homes to downtown Seattle — aren’t required to move.

One stream, officially called Martha Washington Creek, has Interstate 5 and Old Highway 99 running right next to it, said Keith Morrison, a drainage commissioner and farmer. And just like the highways, the stream — actually a drainage ditch — is a vital piece of infrastructure to local agriculture, which needs the soil drained, he said.

“If you don’t make them move that stuff,” he said, referring to the highways, “we’re not moving anything.”

Tom Solberg, another vocal opponent, proposed a simple solution — “What we should do is make it a voluntary buffer, and those who volunteer, pay them well.”

The commissioners said they wished their options were that easy.

“It’s easy to say not to follow the law, but it’s not very easy to do,” said Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt.

The county is encouraging farmers to sign up for the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which pays rent for land used by buffers. Depending on the soil type in that area, buffers can be as narrow as 50 feet, but on Skagit County soils are more typically a minimum of 120 feet. About half of the farmers signed up for the program have chosen the maximum 180-foot width because the program pays so much money per acre.

The program pays twice the federal soil rental rate for each acre taken up by buffers. The county also is offering a signing bonus of $40 per acre per year for farmers who sign up for the program by May 24. That bonus will not be extended because the county is running out of money to give out, said Chal Martin, the county’s public works director.

Farmers signing up for the program also may be able to install 75-foot buffers and receive a lower reimbursement rate. State agencies are expected to rule on that possibility late this summer.

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