The Dirt Issue 25 – Voluntary Stewardship Program

Posted on March 29, 2018
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Farmland preservation is a complicated issue. It’s more than removing development threats so farmland can keep functioning as farmland; it’s also the necessary measures required to keep farming viable. Viable means profitable, of course, and that means getting the most production possible out of the land. It’s a goal which can be threatened by competing claims on the land itself.

One of the non-farming claims on agricultural lands is habitat for fish and wildlife along streams. For 15 years now, Skagit County has imposed restrictions on agriculture which walk the narrow line of compromise between the need for habitat and the requirements for viable farming. Among these rules are such injunctions as the requirement to maintain riparian (along banksides of streams or rivers) vegetation, keep livestock and manure out of streams, and prevent inappropriate levels of nutrients from leaching off fields. According to the County, “these provisions are accepted and embraced by local agriculture as a reasonable compromise solution to the challenge of protecting critical areas in areas of agricultural activity.” 

The instrument for these rules and restrictions is the Skagit County Critical Areas Ordinance, or CAO. The CAO was designed to fulfill the mandates of the Growth Management Act, but over time, many additional interpretations of what should be done have come to the fore, some binding, some not. It has led to a confusing and costly state of affairs, leading all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court.

A workable solution

In 2011, the Washington State Legislature created the Voluntary Stewardship Program to protect critical areas, while maintaining and enhancing the long-term viability of agriculture. The VSP “enables an enrolled county to protect and restore riparian streams and other critical areas on agricultural land through new voluntary programs and coordination of existing programs, instead of new regulation.” (

Skagit County formally enrolled in the VSP on December 19, 2011. After years of extensive efforts by a wide array of interested stakeholders, the County’s Work Plan was approved by the Washington State Conservation Commission on July 6, 2017.

The VSP will allow the County “to maintain current regulations protecting critical areas on agricultural lands while providing incentives for landowners to do more to protect them.” (

What is the goal?

The goal is to protect and maintain suitable fish and wildlife habitat while recognizing that, “agricultural lands [contribute to] critical fish and wildlife habitat and other ecosystem functions, especially in highly-productive lower elevation riparian areas . . . maintaining the vibrancy of agriculture is crucial to recovering Puget Sound and instrumental in providing a high quality of life in the region.” (Puget Sound Partnership Action Agenda)

To that end, Skagit County’s designated Fish and Wildlife Habitat Conservation Areas will be protected by a simple rule: agriculture may not clear existing native riparian vegetation, but may continue existing farming adjacent to streams.”

The steps toward habitat protection

Effective fish and wildlife habitat in these areas requires a buffer between farmed land and streambanks. Depending on the kind of stream it is—seasonal or permanent, fish-bearing or not—the width of buffer varies.

A buffer is intended to filter any runoff from the fields to prevent sediment and nutrients from entering the stream. It stabilizes the streambank to curtail erosion and it provides shade and large woody debris in the stream. These cool the water and create refuge pools in the streamflow so that juvenile fish can forage for their food, rest and avoid predators.

Not just any buffer will do

One of the ongoing battles along streambanks is invasive plant species or noxious weeds. These are non-native plants like blackberry vines and knotweed that, having no natural predators, overwhelm native plants and take over. The result is a harmful lack of plant diversity, an essential requirement to provide leaf litter, the primary food source for the macroinvertebrates which are the main prey source for juvenile fish. Invasive species are often annuals which die off in the winter and can do nothing to stabilize streambanks when rains are abundant.

Ongoing responsibilities

Maintaining streamside buffers is an ongoing responsibility of the County and the landowner. Changes occur alongside streams for many reasons, a number of which are natural and beyond a farmer’s control. The County has an aerial photography baseline of streambanks and their buffers dating from 2011. It will be compared regularly to present day conditions. This monitoring will allow the County to address any changes and make adjustments as necessary.

Integration rather than duplication

As mentioned previously, Skagit County has a long history of working on these issues and already has various programs to deal with specific areas of the county. According to the County’s VSP Work Plan, “Skagit County intends to integrate the countywide VSP with the Clean Samish Initiative and other water pollution and habitat protection programs.” A further example of such integration is the County’s Natural Resource Stewardship Program which assists landowners in enhancing streamside habitat “through voluntary easements, plantings and livestock fencing.” Expansion of this program will be “the centerpiece of the County’s voluntary measures for implementing VSP.” Further, the County asserts, “the VSP will attempt to offer a full range of compensation opportunities, including the purchase of temporary easements for the planting areas, purchase of permanent easements, or purchase in fee simple through segmentation, a boundary line adjustment, or friendly condemnation.”

Skagit County will “achieve protection and enhancement through a combination of our existing critical areas rules and new, voluntary incentive programs.” According to their own VSP work plan, the farmers’ needs can be potentially addressed by “a flexible buffer installation program [which] would allow for various buffer widths, site-specific selection of plants best suited for adjacent crops, and allow for continued maintenance access to levees, dikes and drainage infrastructure.”

By recognizing the needs of habitat and farms the County is forging a balance that will best serve both.