Agriculture

Franklin County farmers get shot at writing own stewardship plan

An employee of Wray Hay farm in Franklin County repairs to a center-pivot irrigation system on Glade Road North about seven miles north of Pasco in this file photo.
An employee of Wray Hay farm in Franklin County repairs to a center-pivot irrigation system on Glade Road North about seven miles north of Pasco in this file photo. Tri-City Herald

Franklin County farmers will write some of their own environmental regulations under an alternative approach to managing agricultural lands.

Franklin County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to accept $150,000 from the state of Washington’s Voluntary Stewardship Program to press ahead with a management plan.

The voluntary program allows counties to write some of their own environmental regulations in lieu of being subject to the Growth Management Act’s critical areas ordinance, which mandates protecting areas used for agriculture.

The alternative approach is controversial, but supporters say it is a rare chance to insert local expertise and control into environmental management.

If we’re not in the Voluntary Stewardship program, we can’t defend ourselves from a critical area ruling.

James Alford, president, Franklin County Farm Bureau

Benton and Franklin counties both opted into the volunteer program when it was first proposed in 2012.

Wednesday’s decision commits Franklin County to accepting state money and forming a work group with representatives from agriculture, conservation groups and tribes. They will have three years to create a stewardship plan.

The plan would be subject to state approval. If the county decides the program isn’t working, it can withdraw and place itself under the Growth Management Act.

Clint Didier, a Franklin County farmer and former candidate for Congress, said voluntary stewardship is a carrot that will lead to increased government regulation. He made a similar complaint when the program first emerged four years ago.

“It’s all about taking control of our water,” he cautioned the county commission.

Farmers support voluntary stewardship, said James Alford, president of the Franklin County Farm Bureau.

Voluntary stewardship puts planning in local hands. The Growth Management Act is being litigated, chiefly in west side courts whose rulings would be binding here.

“If we’re not in the Voluntary Stewardship program, we can’t defend ourselves from a critical area ruling,” he said. “There is nothing right now that would be unattractive about being in it.”

Dave Mantarola, an Eltopia farmer and farm bureau board member, said Franklin County farmers already are strong stewards of the land they farm. Putting the planning in their hands makes sense.

“We’re already doing it. It’s just not being documented,” he said.

Commissioners said they would rather put planning in local hands.

“I can’t imagine a better group,” said Commissioner Brad Peck. “I certainly choose them over a group of bureaucrats in Olympia.”

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

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