Story written by Don Jenkins of the Capital Press
The Washington Farm Bureau has broadly criticized a state and federal plan to breach dikes and inundate hundreds of acres of farmland in Whatcom and Skagit counties to create fish habitat.
The farm bureau says a recent report by the Army Corps of Engineers understates the loss of farmland in Skagit County and undervalues agriculture in both counties.
“Our opposition rests on the principle that preserving farmable ground should be the single greatest priority of our state and our nation,” the bureau’s director of government relations, Tom Davis, said in written comments submitted Aug. 12 to the corps.
The corps and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have been working for more than a decade on a plan to roll back “ecological degradation” in Puget Sound.
The corps and WDFW propose to convert into fish habitat 1,807 acres in Whatcom County, 256 acres in Skagit County and 38 acres in Jefferson County.
Collectively known as the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Projects, the three would cost an estimated $452 million. Funding has not been approved by Congress or the Washington Legislature.
The projects in Whatcom and Skagit counties rely heavily on inundating farmland to return land to pre-settlement conditions. The corps’ report calls the loss of farmland minimal and necessary.
The farm bureau notes that residential and industrial areas are never targeted for restoration — only finite farmland.
“Maintaining the ability to grow the food that sustains our nation should not be taken lightly, and yet time after time the primary focus for salmon recovery projects is prime farmland,” Davis wrote.
In its report, the corps stated that the loss of 800 acres of “prime farmland” in the Nooksack River Delta in Whatcom County would be economically “minor and insignificant.”
The corps reported that the project along the North Fork of the Skagit River included only 5 acres used for agriculture.
A corps spokeswoman said the report should have qualified that the land included only 5 acres of “prime farmland,” while other land would be prime farmland if drained or irrigated.
Washington Department of Agriculture land surveys show that almost the entire area is being used to grow vegetables, berries, hay or other crops.
“It’s all farms,” said Allen Rozema, executive director of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland. “We know it’s more than 5 acres.”
The corps reported that the acres lost in Whatcom and Skagit counties would be only a fraction of the region’s agricultural land.
Davis said the corps’ analysis was too simplistic and failed to consider how the farmland fitted into the area’s agricultural economy.