Washington’s Voluntary Stewardship Program passes major milestone in protecting critical areas and farmland

voluntary stewardship program logo

December 7, 2018

OLYMPIA, WA – Twenty-seven of Washington’s 39 counties have the green light to use incentive-based and farm-friendly strategies to comply with state growth management requirements. With approval of Spokane County’s Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) work plan on November 30, work plans for all counties using the VSP approach have been approved by the state.

This milestone is the culmination of a negotiated effort that began over 11 years ago to resolve disputes over protection of wetlands, salmon habitat, other critical areas, and agricultural activities.

“It is very exciting to see that all 27 counties that opted in to the VSP program now have approved watershed plans,” said John Stuhlmiller, Chief Executive Officer of the Washington Farm Bureau. “It has been a challenging journey, and I am pleased to see that the original vision of a voluntary, local process has proved successful.”

VSP work plans are an answer to the state requirement that each county develop plans for managing population growth, protecting critical areas located on farmland, and promoting farm viability. Critical areas include wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat, frequently flooded areas, critical aquifer recharge areas, and geologically hazardous areas, such as those prone to erosion.

The plans rely on incentives to voluntarily engage farmers in stewardship activities that protect critical areas. Prior to 2011 and the creation of VSP, the main tool for counties to meet state growth management requirements was regulation. With VSP, counties and landowners will demonstrate how incentive-based farm practices can protect or even enhance critical areas.

Each VSP work plan has been reviewed and approved by a state technical panel and the Washington State Conservation Commission (SCC), the state agency that administers VSP.

“The State Conservation Commission and all partners involved with developing and reviewing these work plans have worked hard to ensure that each VSP county has a path forward that’s a win for the environment, a win for agriculture, and that will help them sustainably plan for and manage growth,” said Mark Clark, SCC Executive Director. “This is a great example of a collaborative, community-driven solution that’s making Washington an even better place to live and work.”

Now that all VSP work plans have been approved, community members, farmers, and landowners should see an increase in outreach and education efforts from their local county work groups informing them of the benefits of VSP and seeking their participation in protecting critical areas while maintaining the viability of agriculture.

“Now we have to keep pressing on to ensure that plans get implemented in a way that protects critical areas while maintaining and enhancing the viability of agriculture in each participating county,” said Stuhlmiller.

Program background

In 2006, court decisions indicated agricultural lands could not be exempted from regulatory requirements for protection of these critical areas. Some agricultural producers voiced concern that these regulatory burdens would force them out of agriculture. At the same time, other stakeholders were concerned that critical areas needed to be protected from potential agricultural impacts. This dispute led to a negotiated process at the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, which resulted in the Voluntary Stewardship Program.

Twenty-seven counties in Washington are using the VSP approach