Conserving Working Lands, Native Species, and Fertile Soil
by: Methow Conservancy Posted on: December 15, 2010
By Mary Kiesau
It’s not on the endangered species list, it’s not listed in a field guide, it doesn’t fly or swim, yet farmland is a keystone to conservation. Biologists, planners, and landowners of the Methow Valley watershed, located in eastern Washington’s Okanogan county, have been working on this principal with the Methow Valley Conservancy since 1996.
Some might argue that farming harms the natural flow of our rivers, increases the spread of weeds, and is not compatible with a modernizing economy. Around the globe, the rise of industrial agriculture has put farming and conservation at odds, but the farms of the Methow Valley show that food production and conservation are, in fact, compatible and sustainable.
Farming has been a dominant part of the Methow Valley landscape for over 125 years. Many of the open fields across the valley floor were cleared by the calloused hands of pioneers behind horse-driven plows. Families like the Prewitts, Lehmans, Stokes’, Boesels and Stennes’ have left us with a legacy of tilled fields, orchards, water diversions, and generations of people who have known and loved this valley. These families have also left a grand legacy of conservation, having protected some of the best working soils and ranchland using permanent conservation easements.
Conservation easements are written legal agreements between a willing landowner and a public entity or land trust that permanently protect specific conservation values and conditions including wildlife habitat, working farms and ranches, scenic views, open space, and riverfront. Easements typically reduce or eliminate future development in order to protect these conservation values, and in all cases the landowner retains ownership of their land, most still living on the land itself. Easements enacted by the Methow Conservancy become permanently tied to the land no matter who owns it in the future, and are tailored to the different needs of each property to better protect its unique conservation values. We believe in the effectiveness of easements because they address the specific values of a particular land and directly involve private landowners.
One of the Methow Conservancy’s very first conservation easements was a farmland easement completed with a long-time ranching family in the heart of the Valley’s farming corridor. The Conservancy built upon establishing that key easement by continuing to provide an open door and seek advice from farmers and community leaders, share and discuss their goals with local and county public officials, and seek new and innovative grant funding.
In 2003, the Methow Conservancy was the first organization in eastern Washington to be awarded funds through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmland Protection Program. The funds helped protect over 350 acres of the Stokes Ranch outside of Twisp, Washington.
Almost two-thirds of the Methow Conservancy’s operating budget comes from individual, personal donations. The Conservancy’s 1,000 contributing members span across 31 states and several other countries. Furthermore, in the last five years alone the Methow Conservancy has sought and been awarded over $10 million in public grants for projects such as salmon recovery, scenic byway maintenance, and farmland preservation.
Ensuring that working lands, native species, and fertile soil will always be in the Methow Valley requires more than protecting these lands from development. Over the past 15 years, the Methow Conservancy has created a well-known and highly popular repertoire of education programs and field classes that focus primarily on agricultural themes. In 2007, the Methow Conservancy teamed up with the American Farmland Trust (AFT) to conduct a Cost of Community Services (COCS) study with Okanogan County. The study found that farm, forest, and open lands more than pay for their required municipal maintenance services. For each dollar that Okanogan County receives in revenue from working and open lands, they spend only 56 cents providing services to those lands. In contrast, for each dollar in revenue the county gets from residential lands, the county spends $1.06 providing services to this land type.
The report concluded that, “In addition to helping maintain fiscal balance, agricultural lands help sustain the local economy, contribute to economic diversity and rural character, and help shape the overall quality of life in the region.” The study allowed the Methow Conservancy to raise awareness about the economic role farming plays in the community. The work also continued to build an important relationship between Okanogan County and the Methow Conservancy.
In 2008, the first farmland conservation project to come from a cooperative agreement between Okanogan County and the Methow Conservancy was completed, protecting 110 acres of highly productive agricultural land owned and farmed by Charles Lehman. The project was made possible by a new State Farmland Preservation fund as part of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP). This project was the first farmland preservation project in Washington completed under this new state program. Okanogan County Commissioner Bud Hover said, “This project is a good example of how we can work together to preserve productive farmland and in doing so retain the rural character and agricultural economy of Okanogan County.”
Today’s farmers in the Methow play a critical role in increasing soil quality and slowing weed invasion through crop rotation and planting nitrogen-fixing species. They challenge the assumption that global food production will crowd out family farms, and they keep the rural working landscape and history of the Methow Valley intact. Our farmers have also made great strides from an ecological standpoint. In an effort to coexist with complex species like salmon, many farmers have improved irrigation efficiency by converting antiquated “hand lines,” or flood irrigation, to high-efficiency center pivots that use substantially less water. Furthermore, many barriers to fish passage in the region, such as culverts, have been replaced with bridges and fish ladders so that ponds, wetlands, and streams can stay connected to rivers.
To date, the Methow Conservancy has protected nearly 1,500 acres of core working farmland in the Methow Valley. Methow Conservancy Executive Director, Jason Paulsen says, “Protecting farmland also protects an irreplaceable way of life in the Methow Valley. We are grateful and proud that our community of members believes in keeping local farmers working, protecting farmable soils, and maintaining the rural character of the Methow Valley. Through their support we are able to help protect the farmland and farming heritage of the Methow Valley.”
For more information about the Methow Conservancy’s work go to www.methowconservancy.org
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