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Sue Lani Madsen: Ag Forestry program bridges divisions with understanding

Public policy usually makes the Opinion page when people are anxious, annoyed or angry. Perhaps it’s a reaction to enlarged riparian setbacks or ranchers beset by animal predators while facing human pressure from single-minded wildlife preservationists. Or the ongoing conflict between salmon recovery planners wrestling for water with irrigators and electric power producers.

The Ag Forestry Leadership program was born out of the original 1960s “Fish Wars” between tribal and commercial fisheries, according to Vicky Scharlau, interim executive director of Washington’s Agriculture and Forestry Education Foundation. After the 1974 Boldt decision, it was Billy Frank Jr. from the Nisqually Tribe and Ellensburg rancher Stu Bledsoe who were leaders in development of the 1987 Timber/Fish/Wildlife Agreement which still undergirds Washington’s salmon policy.

“Stu Bledsoe had the idea to develop a natural resources leadership program where producers could learn how to more effectively pursue their needs and better explain their industries to the public,” Scharlau said.

But it’s not just about teaching farmers, ranchers, foresters and fishers to be advocates for their industries. Debate skills are useful, but even more important is understanding the point of view of your audience. It’s why Ag Forestry classes have always included a mix of natural resource industry producers with future leaders from the agencies regulating them, from every region of the state. As the role of special interest groups has grown in public policymaking, participants have also been recruited from nonprofits with intersecting interests.

It’s a path into a powerful network of more than 1,000 alumni, including 9th Legislative District legislators Sen. Mark Schoesler (Class 10) and Rep. Joe Schmick (Class 14) representing southern Spokane County plus Lincoln, Adams, Whitman, Garfield, Columbia and Asotin counties, and a large section of Franklin County.

Ag Forestry Class 42 graduated last week in Pasco, having set a record for the longest path to graduation. Their 18-month course started in the fall of 2019. Like every other educational program in the country, there was no plan in place for the disruptions of 2020. When group activities and travel shut down, program director Hannah Poush met virtually with the class to decide what to do in the face of uncertainty. “We didn’t think we could convert a program built on in-person networking into a virtual program with the same impact,” Poush said. “The class was committed to continuing, but decided it was better to go on pause for a year.”

As it turned out, that “fallow” year provided space for the Ag Forestry staff and trustees to re-examine long-standing curriculum, try out ways to incorporate technology, and pilot new ideas. One of those was a formal mentoring program, linking the in-limbo members of Class 42 with the larger Ag Forestry network. As an alumnus myself (Class 29) I volunteered and was matched with Kelly Dougherty, a forester with Weyerhauser who had just transferred to a supervisory position and was navigating how to establish new working relationships in a virtual office world.

Our conversations were a reminder of why it was important for the program to wait for in-person gatherings again. Real networking takes place in the in-between conversations. In an office, those might be in the hallway or at the office coffee pot. For Ag Forestry, it’s while traveling together to seminars around the state as well as to Washington, D.C.

One of those locations is always Olympia while the Legislature is in session, and here’s where the extra time gave Class 42 an edge.

Every class breaks into subgroups to tackle critical public policy issues. Many have proposed significant legislation, but few have made it all the way to a signed bill. The members of Class 42 made good use of their extra time. Of their five public policy projects, two resulted in legislation signed in 2021, both co-sponsored by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, one addressing broadband access in rural Washington and the other expanded telemedicine services for greater access to mental health care. A third project incentivizing the use of biochar is awaiting the governor’s signature. All three measures passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Not nominally bipartisan, with a single member of the minority party joining the majority in an otherwise party-line vote, but by votes of 92-5, 94-3 and 96-1.

“Every class visiting Olympia is told its worth remembering that more than 90% of the bills passed by the Washington state Legislature in any given year are bipartisan,” Poush said.

A proposal to provide a B&O tax credit to encourage youth labor participation is ready for the 2023 session. The fifth project has resulted in useful dialog between two executive branch agencies.

We’ll always have headline grabbing public policy differences. There will be more of them in this column. But it’s worth remembering the “aha” moments cited by Colton Cooley, selected as graduation speaker by his classmates last week. Self-awareness is key to other-awareness. Seek out uncomfortable situations to make progress. Find the common ground before starting difficult conversations. And never underestimate the importance of following up.

Sue Lani Madsen is a graduate of the Washington Ag Forestry program, Class 29; feedback welcome at,

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