WA state ‘buffer bill’ is anti-agriculture. HB 1838 forces farmers to sacrifice land

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·4 min read

HB 1838 asks Washingtonians to save fish habitat at the expense of rural communities.

The bill, which purports to strike a compromise between fish and farmers, proposes an expansion of riparian mitigation areas to between 100 and 249 feet depending upon the site in a statewide mandate.

The effect of the bill in the Tri-Cities area would be an increase in riparian buffers along creeks and rivers on a site specific basis. Anywhere water is or may be temporarily, like a seasonal floodplain, would be considered subject to the rule in HB 1838. The required expansion of riparian zones has the potential to have dramatic impacts on the agricultural community.

The establishment of buffer zones of 150 feet along 1 mile of riparian zone are the equivalent of 18 acres of farmland. What makes the bill seem to specifically target agriculture and rural communities is the exemption of urban areas from the rules of the bill.

Also included in the bill are compensation schedules for landowners who must remove more than half an acre of land from production. Landowners falling into that category must be compensated “at least equal to the amount that would be offered under the conservation reserve enhancement program if the affected lands were enrolled in that program for 10 years, regardless of whether the lands are actually eligible for the conservation reserve enhancement program.”

However, that reimbursement for the land disqualifies the landowner from participating in agricultural activities on that land in perpetuity.

Compensation to participate in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is approximately $100/acre annually. So, for approximately $1,000/acre ($100/year for 10 years), farmers are banned from ever farming their land in a riparian zone again.

The average reported cost per acre for farm ground in Washington state in 2019 was $13,000 an acre. Further, the land compensation rate contradicts the bill’s own language noting, “Private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation having been made. The property rights of landowners shall be protected from arbitrary and discriminatory actions.”

Compensating landowners less than 10 percent the market value of their farmland is far from “just compensation.”

Along with a lack of proper compensation, HB 1838 is not a voluntary program. Private property owners will be identified by the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife as having riparian zones in need of restoration. After private property owners have been notified of the need to restore their riparian zones, they have 30 days to comply with the order by self-funding the purchase, planting, and maintenance in perpetuity of trees as recommended by the Department of Fish & Wildlife. Private property owners who are found to be in breach of the 30-day compliance window will be fined $10,000 a day, every day until they comply with the order.

The caveat to the self-funding of these riparian zone installations is that HB 1838 proposes to “cover at least 70 percent of the landowner’s cost to establish and maintain the riparian management zone, or 90 percent of the landowner’s cost if there is an economic hardship.”

Meanwhile, the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Wetland Mitigation Resources program is a promise between our state and its residents to “achieve a no-overall-net loss in the amount (acreage) and function of Washington’s remaining wetlands” and is chronically underfunded by the legislature.

If Washington state wants to save salmon, first and foremost, everyone should have skin in the game, not just the people who happen to have water running through their property or who happen to live in a rural community. Oftentimes, rural communities bear the burden of environmental policies like these while people in urban areas are given a free pass to sit back in judgment of their compatriots.

Yet, rural communities are also most often home to those with the deepest connection to the natural resources they are alleged to have ravaged. For people in rural areas, healthy environments are critical to existence and ruining them is the surest way to end their livelihoods.

There is no justice in HB 1838 for fish, for waterways, or for Washingtonians. Real change that benefits everyone requires voluntary participation and buy in from every person in Washington, not just the ones living outside the confines of urban control.

Pam Lewison is the Agriculture Policy Research Director for the Washington Policy Center, a nonprofit research organization with offices in Tri-Cities, Spokane, Seattle and Olympia. Online at www.washingtonpolicy.org .

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