Sound Off: ampbusting now allowed

By Steve Erickson

All three Whidbey newspapers have now printed a letter from the Island County Commissioners singing the praises of their proposed Critical Areas Ordinance update for wetlands. But the letter never really discusses what the ordinance does or doesn’t do. It just generally says, “Trust us.”

Whidbey Environmental Action Network has reviewed the entire ordinance and background material to see how it stacks up against three standards: 1) Does it protect wetlands; 2) Does it follow where the science leads; and 3) Can it be practically implemented and administered? Unfortunately, major portions of the ordinance fail these standards.

It is not possible to discuss all of the problems with the ordinance in a single op-ed. WEAN’s final comments run to 28 pages. If you would like a copy, email us at wean@whidbey.net and we’ll post it to you. We won’t sell, share, trade, or otherwise give your email address to anyone else.

I will discuss just one provision in the ordinance which will be disastrous for the environment of all of Puget Sound. This provision will allow farming to be resumed in any wetland that has ever been “historically farmed,” no matter how long ago. This is a drastic departure from county law for nearly the last quarter century. Thousands of acres of wetlands are potentially affected.

Since 1984, new swampbusting (conversion of wetlands to farming) has not been allowed. That law also sets a five year limit on how long farming in a wetland can be stopped before it’s no longer considered “existing and ongoing.”

How long ago is “historically farmed?” The Planning Commission made it very clear that this includes any wetland that was ever farmed, no matter how many decades ago.

The only limit is if a “conversion” forest practices permit from the Department of Natural Resources is needed, but it’s a requirement with lots of loopholes allowing clearing of forested wetlands where the trees have grown up over the decades since farming was abandoned. There is no limit on swampbusting of non-forested wetlands. For example, the Hardhack peat bog wetland visible from Ewing Road in the Maxwelton Valley was farmed many decades ago. These dozens of acres of wetland could be cleared, drained, and farmed again under this ordinance.

So, how many acres of wetlands could be impacted by this county-blessed swampbusting? U.S. Dept. of Agriculture statistics show farming in Island County peaked in 1940 with 54,969 acres (41.7 percent of the county). By 2002, the last year for which statistics are available, farmland had declined to 15,018 acres, a reduction of 39,951 acres. In one of the documents the county touts as Best Available Science, its consultant estimates that wetlands cover about 14 percent of the county. If the 39,951 acres that are no longer farmed include wetlands at that rate, 5,593 acres of wetlands that were farmed once upon a time could be again. Using the 14 percent figure, that’s about 30.3 percent of all the wetlands in Island County.

Potential clearing, grading, tilling, plowing, conversion to pasture and grazing of over 5,500 acres of wetlands in Puget Sound is of local, regional, national, and international significance. While all three county commissioners apparently think it’s fine, they haven’t ever said why. Outside attorney Keith Dearborn stated that he consulted with Dan Wood on this proposal. Dan Wood, author of the infamous Initiative 933, thought it was fine. That I 933 was rejected by over two-thirds of Island County voters doesn’t seem to have made any impression on Dearborn or the county commissioners.

The state Legislature passed a law last spring calling a time out on new regulations that specifically address farming and critical areas. That law, SSB 5248, prohibits adopting any new regulations about farming and critical areas until 2010. During the time out, the Legislature and governor directed the Ruckelshaus Center at the University of Washington to conduct negotiations among the agricultural community, tribes, environmental community and local jurisdictions. SSB 5248 also says it “does not intend this act to reduce or otherwise diminish existing critical area ordinances that apply to agricultural activities during the deferral period.” Island County’s proposed ordinance makes compliance with the existing prohibition on swampbusting voluntary while allowing swampbusting of wetlands that haven’t been farmed in 100 years. This plainly diminishes an existing critical area regulation that explicitly applies to agricultural activities, which is precisely what SSB 5248 prohibits. Once again, Island County is taking the path of outright defiance of state environmental laws, throwing our tax dollars down the litigation rathole; lucrative for Keith Dearborn, but expensive for the rest of us. Not only does this blatantly defy state law, it also threatens to torpedo the statewide negotiations that are under way. We don’t understand why the commissioners want to do this.

And that’s just one thing that’s wrong with the proposed wetlands ordinance.

Steve Erickson represents the Whidbey Environmental Action Network.

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