WENATCHEE — Chelan County is one of two counties statewide that will receive state funding next year to launch a program to help farmers pay for projects that protect rivers and other environmentally sensitive areas on their lands.
Chelan and Thurston counties will each receive state budget funds, approved last week, to launch a “Voluntary Stewardship Program” pilot project. Chelan County will receive $150,000 for the first year.
The counties were chosen because both have a lot of farmland and are facing pressures from growth, Ron Shultz, director of the state Conservation Commission, said Tuesday. The commission oversees the stewardship program.
Each county will appoint a local agency or group of local experts to identify that county’s critical environmental zones on private farmland.
The group could then funnel state funds to the farmers willing to undertake approved conservation projects.
Projects that could receive funding must address any of five critical areas identified in the state’s Growth Management Act: wetlands, aquifer-recharge areas, floodplains, geological hazards and critical habitat, Shultz said.
Qualifying on-the-farm conservation could include fencing to keep cattle out of streams or efforts to create buffers around critical habitat areas.
Farmers wouldn’t be forced to launch conservation projects, Shultz said, but those that do will receive some state money to help cover costs.
The Volunteer Stewardship Program is designed to give counties an option to find local, workable solutions to threats to critical conservation without having solutions imposed by the courts, Shultz said.
It was created as an alternative to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups that challenged Skagit County’s proposal to address critical conservation on farmlands within the framework of the Growth Management Act.
The parties agreed to resolve the dispute through mediation at the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, a dispute-resolution arm of the University of Washington.
The three-year mediation process involved counties, tribes and agencies that have a stake in environmental conservation, Shultz said.
Chelan County Commissioner Ron Walter, who is also an orchardist, was on of the county representatives who participated in the talks.
“The idea is to get everyone out of court battles,” Walter said Wednesday. “The win-lose scenario is never a good one for public policy.”
The state legislature approved the Volunteer Stewardship Program in 2007, but it went unfunded until the 2013 budget, Shultz said.
Walter said county officials will work with Shultz and other agencies over the coming weeks and months to get the program started.