WALLA WALLA -- Walla Walla County commissioners voted last week to opt into the state Voluntary Stewardship Program.
The program, approved by the state Legislature last year, is aimed at balancing the needs of farmers and ranchers with protection of critical areas as defined by the state's Growth Management Act.
The program, which is under the direction of the Washington State Conservation Commission, is also intended to protect counties from challenges and lawsuits over such rules as buffers between working farmlands and streams.
County commissioners directed staff members to have a resolution drawn up for approval in time for commissioners' Jan. 17 meeting in order to meet a deadline for opting into the program.
Walla Walla County will join a rapidly growing list of counties that are opting into the program. Tom Glover, director of the Walla Walla Joint Community Development Agency, said that as of today seven other counties have opted in and at least five more are considering the issue.
The seven counties which have opted in are Skagit, Lewis, Kittitas, Stevens, Spokane, Douglas and Grays Harbor, Glover said.
Under state law, critical areas are defined as geologically hazardous areas, frequently flooded areas, critical aquifer recharge areas, wetlands and fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas.
Prior to the end of last year, critical areas regulations applied to agricultural areas, but not to agricultural activities.
Those activities were exempted until the start of this year pending the outcome of a study by the Ruckelshaus Center and subsequent action by the state Legislature.