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Under the radar and out of control

By John Koster, The Herald - Everett, Wash. - www.HeraldNet.com  February 18, 2007

Citizens of Snohomish County are blessed to live in a place that has it all for those of us who love the Pacific Northwest lifestyle. Rivers, lakes, mountains, all close enough for us to enjoy, and the word is out that this county is a great place to live. With a robust regional economy led by corporate giants Boeing and Microsoft, our local construction industry struggles to keep pace with the housing needs of our sons and daughters and newcomers.

While we enjoy on one hand the fruits of our prosperity and growth in the form of a healthy job market, we also endure frequent traffic jams and other growth-related challenges as we continue to play catch-up with our transportation infrastructure. In spite of the challenges before us, we remain a vibrant and optimistic county that remembers and has a heart for its rural roots. We continue, as we should, to place a high value on the protection of farming and farmlands.

A particularly disturbing trend in our land use policy, however, is the seemingly unstoppable destruction of thousands of acres of valuable farmlands via "wetland conversions." The conversions are being done in the name of conservation for salmon or wildlife habitat, wetland banking and/or other environmental programs unrelated to farming. Projects are planned and carried out by government agencies with your tax dollars via federal, state and local grants, and it's happening under the public radar.

It's no secret that farmland-to-wetland conversion projects are popular today with politically correct media and environmental groups. Proponents and their supporters enjoy a general lack of high profile scrutiny. In essence, large scale environmental projects that gobble up hundreds and even thousands of acres of farmland (more than 2,000 in this county since the 1990s) are often given a free pass from genuine media scrutiny while relatively tiny non-wetland conversion projects involving farmlands are subject to intense media pressure and subsequent criticism.

A good example of this involves Snohomish County's recent purchase of 155 acres of farmland on Smith Island to go along with another 269 purchased in 2001. The plan there is to breech the dikes and flood the farmland to create salmon habitat. In The Herald's Jan. 29 article headlined "Smith Island to Nurture Salmon," the writer gushes about the virtues of the project, never once describing the project as controversial or that the properties to be flooded are farmlands. Neither is it mentioned that these private properties are to become non-productive government lands, forever removed from the tax rolls. The rosy, one-sided presentation of the Smith Island project provides stark contrast to the negative tone expressed in articles appearing in The Herald describing the recent Arlington UGA expansion of a mere six acres as "controversial" and perhaps even "illegal," as was erroneously stated by Futurewise.

Needless to say, I don't know when or where or who decided on a policy that any farmland-to-wetland conversion trumps Snohomish County's commitment to preserving our farmland. In the Smith Island case, our own Surface Water Department, working behind the scenes and with good intentions, secured grant money to purchase the properties for the "conversion." When Surface Water brought the proposal to the County Council at the 11th hour, we were confronted with losing the grant money if the measure was voted down.

My point is not to say that all farmland-to-wetland conversions are a bad thing, as there may be occasions where they should be utilized. However, a thorough examination of any potential conversion should be required and should include genuine participation from the Farm Bureau, the Snohomish County Agricultural Board and locally elected officials.

For the past several years the county executive has used the weight of his office to bring much attention to the annual Focus on Farming events. These events have done much to promote an image that Snohomish County is committed to farming and preserving its farmland. However, image isn't everything. It is obvious that we will need to do a better job in the future of communicating our pro-farming vision to the agencies under our own authority. In other words, the right hand needs to know what the left hand is doing - and the policy makers, not unelected bureaucrats, need to be the makers of the policy.

Farmland-to-wetland projects such as Smith Island need ample time to study, review and ponder. They require much more than a last-minute opportunity for an elected official's rubber stamp.

John Koster is a member of the Snohomish County Council, representing north county communities including Marysville, Arlington, Granite Falls, Stanwood and Darrington.


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