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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Ag interests left out in formulating riparian bill

Imagine you are Gov. Jay Inslee. Someone brings you an idea for a new riparian land-use policy to protect salmon habitat. This new policy will affect more workers than currently employed by Microsoft and Boeing combined, representing 160,000 jobs and 13% of the economy.

So you start by putting together a list of all stakeholders with an interest in both salmon and riparian land-use. You bring them to the table, remembering your 2015 “Results Washington” commitment to government transparency. Your pledge even won you an award from the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

Unless you actually are Inslee, in which case you only invite half the stakeholders to participate. Not even your own cabinet level Department of Agriculture, which inconveniently might point out the negative impact on $51 billion in GDP and over $16 billion in annual exports of the resulting governor’s request, pre-filed as HB 1838 by a cooperative legislator.

When a closed group with one point of view writes complex legislation, the inevitable unintended consequences are multiplied. It requires all stakeholders involved to get beyond yet another partisan party line vote.

Picture a car traveling down the road, perhaps a new model HB 1838 (EV of course), with Gov. Inslee at the wheel. Two passengers in back represent the Department of Ecology and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. In the front passenger seat is a cheerful farmer representing the Department of Agriculture. Suddenly there’s a kerthump, and the governor pulls over to the side of the road. Gov. Inslee and the back seat passengers slide out the left side and look at the tires. Everything looks great, they congratulate themselves on their good driving and climb in. Meanwhile, the farmer is trying to get their attention, pointing to the flat tire on the right side as the car peels out.

Writing legislation without all the stakeholders at the table may work for a while but it won’t go the distance. This year’s Legislature is already cleaning up after one-sided policies passed last year, including attempts at inventing a brand new long-term care insurance program and reforming professional policing. Both would have benefited from a broader stakeholder process.

When HB 1838 came before the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee for public hearing on Jan. 19, every testifier agreed salmon are an important resource. No group had an appetite for salmon disappearing from Washington rivers and streams, although folks on both sides did speak to how tasty they are.

Opponents to the legislation as submitted did have a common theme, a lack of inclusiveness. Major stakeholders were simply not invited to participate in developing the bill and are now seeking opportunities to amend if not defeat HB 1838.

HB 1838 would establish statewide riparian management zones known as RMZs, eliminating all agricultural uses within 150 to 250 feet of the edges of streams and floodplains. The bill is championed by Washington tribes who are, ironically, exempted from mandatory buffer requirements on tribal land.

While supporters testified to their belief that cost share funding would adequately compensate property owners, farmers described it as “a pittance” and a threat to the viability of their operations. And how could any bill realistically reflect costs and impacts to landowners without asking for their input?

Setbacks and buffers have been negotiated watershed by watershed with broad stakeholder input. Sometimes DOE didn’t like the results. This bill breaks a wary truce built up over more than two decades and abandons the voluntary stewardship program.

Piling on more regulations is likely to lead to fewer farms and more sprawl, particularly on the west side. Ken Bell, Whatcom County port commissioner, emphasized potential collaborative solutions as the way forward. Paved-over pastures won’t help salmon.

Representatives from Washington’s county governments, conservation districts, farm groups and business lobbyists testified on the lack of broad stakeholder involvement and a range of other concerns. Heather Hansen signed in on behalf of the Washington Nursery & Landscape Association and also represents several other ag groups. “The governor’s office did no outreach to affected stakeholders, it even excluded its own Department of Agriculture as it crafted this proposal,” said Hansen.

After the fact, the Natural Resources Assessment section of the Department of Agriculture completed a study in four counties calculating the amount of land that would be lost to buffers. The results were reported in the Capital Press on Monday. It’s not a hard calculation for their GIS experts. They’ve mapped all agricultural land in the state and track what’s Washington-grown. Had they been asked, they could have told the governor what crops would be lost and the value of those crops. Hansen speculated “I don’t think the governor wanted to know how much damage this is going to do.”

So far the greatest damage has been to trust, when the reward to agriculturalists for years of cooperation with conservation and voluntary stewardship efforts is to be shut out of the process.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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