Policy Issues at Washington State’s largest Conservation District
By Preston Drew
King Conservation District Board Supervisor
December 18, 2011
Congratulations on your election to King Conservation District Supervisor. You will have much to learn and absorb in the coming months. The purpose of this letter is to assist you in getting up to speed on district business. I also want to preserve a record of what happened during my term while my memory is fresh and give you some of my thoughts for improving how KCD does business. The idea of writing a letter to a new supervisor by the outgoing one was considered and supported at a recent KCD board meeting.
The supervisor position comes with a fiduciary responsibility involving large amounts of taxpayer funds. Your election gives you a vote during the next 36 months directing the expense of over 20 million dollars consistent with the mission and priorities of the district. There is much more to the financial aspects of your duties that is out of your control. It is important that you understand this dynamic.
The King Conservation District (KCD) does much fine work in conservation throughout the county principally on farms, streams, shorelines and in limited forestry. The executive staff that I have been exposed to in board settings get very good to excellent ratings. These folks are dedicated to our core mission and priorities and execute at a high level. Board members likewise get high marks for many hours expended in their voluntary, uncompensated capacity with most contributing time beyond stated expectations.
There is a common conservation ethic displayed by every member I have been privileged to work with. There is disagreement, however, on policy and cost issues. One line of reasoning has us always seeking increased funding to expand operations while another recognizes that doing more with less will deliver increased efficiencies and outcomes. I have concerns brought on by the current state of public finance and how this reality may affect the future of the district. It is my opinion that the district spends far too much money on many projects, is involved in projects beyond its scope and understanding, has entered into a financing scheme that may be illegal and is losing sight of its voluntary, non regulatory prime directive in favor of joining the ‘government social club’. Conflicts of interest exist and economies of working lands are shortchanged while politically correct ‘green’ thinking dominates.
History, mission/priorities and structure of King Conservation district
From the National Association of Conservation Districts website: ”In the early 1930s, along with the greatest depression this nation ever experienced, came an equally unparalleled ecological disaster known as the Dust Bowl. Following a severe and sustained drought in the Great Plains, the region’s soil began to erode and blow away, creating huge black dust storms that blotted out the sun and swallowed the countryside. Thousands of “dust refugees” left the black fog to seek better lives.
“But the storms stretched across the nation. They reached south to Texas and east to New York. Dust even sifted into the White House and onto the desk of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“On Capitol Hill, while testifying about the erosion problem, soil scientist Hugh Hammond Bennett threw back the curtains to reveal a sky blackened by dust. Congress unanimously passed legislation declaring soil and water conservation a national policy and priority. Because nearly three-fourths of the continental United States is privately owned, Congress realized that only active, voluntary support from landowners would guarantee the success of conservation work on private land.
“In 1937, President Roosevelt wrote the governors of all the states recommending legislation that would allow local landowners to form soil conservation districts. Brown Creek Soil & Water Conservation District in North Carolina was the first district established. The movement caught on across the country with district-enabling legislation passed in every state. Today, the country is blanketed with nearly 3,000 conservation districts.”
In 1939, the Washington state legislature passed RCW 89.08 creating the state commission and defining actions required to create districts. KCD was created in 1949. Today there are 47 districts throughout the state that generally follow county lines but do not always represent all areas inside the district boundaries.
KCD and other conservation districts are non regulatory agencies, and active, voluntary support from landowners in an altered/ built environment is fundamental to their success. They have gained trust by being viewed as problem solving organizations that respect property rights and understand production and economic needs. This is essential and must remain the most important value. Today it is threatened by close associations with “partner” organizations such as Ecology which have no such doctrine in their ethos. In a KCD Advisory Committee meeting held January 8, 2010 at the Kirkland City Hall to discuss core principles, members wanted increased “ focus on public and non-governmental entities, and not just private (landowners)”. “ Under Bullet #1(in their meeting document), change non regulatory to voluntary because some KCD partners are regulatory agencies”. This is the wrong direction and violates basic operating principles of conservation districts.
KCD Mission: “To promote the sustainable uses of natural resources through responsible stewardship”
The statement fails to include the most important value and has buzzwords like ‘sustainable’ and ’stewardship’ that have subjective meanings. Mission statements should be as short as possible while capturing the essence in clear language. Mine would read:
“To promote the prudent uses of natural resources through voluntary action and non regulatory assistance.”
KCD Vision: King Conservation District will be recognized as a leader in achieving community based stewardship of lands within the district, with economically and environmentally sustainable working lands, vibrant agriculture and technically sound land, water and habitat stewardship embraced by all citizens.
I like the reference to economy less the buzzword, but what is ‘community based stewardship’ and can that really be embraced by all citizens? What are working lands other than vibrant agriculture? Forestry is conspicuously missing as a program of KCD, unlike many other districts across the state, even though significant forestlands exist in the district. Is a vision statement really necessary?
Values include the obvious for any organization: Service, respect, cooperation, responsibility, effectiveness, accountability and transparency. I will focus later on effectiveness because the district needs improvement in this category.
There are eight strategic goals that the board spent considerable time developing. I will summarize these because they basically repeat mission, vision and values while adding that urban and suburban, as well as traditional rural areas will participate. I’ve repeatedly complained about this provision, which is in the RCW, because few resources and opportunities exist in town, expenses are much higher, and the staff and board spend the majority of their time dealing with the 35 jurisdictions in the district at the expense of the rural areas.
KCD has 2 appointed supervisors (board members) 3 elected that serve without compensation (certain expenses are allowed). Staff includes the executive director, her assistant, three program leads and 12 planners and specialists.
KCD is financed mostly by a special ‘per parcel’ assessment (technically not a tax) of about $10.00 not including federal and some forest lands. Parcels in Enumclaw, Federal Way, Milton and Skykomish are not assessed because these jurisdictions have opted out of the district. The assessment is authorized by RCW 89.08.400 and must be approved by the county legislative authority. The King County assessment is over 95% of the KCD budget of about 6.3 million dollars annually. It should be noted here that the statutory maximum is $5.00 per parcel, “except counties over 1.5 million population”, the maximum is $10.00. Any code or policy with this language has King County fingerprints all over it.
You as a newly elected supervisor should study in detail the assessment and all that goes with it. When the King County Council approves substantial funds, substantial strings will be attached. They come defined in two documents, an interlocal agreement (ILA) and an approved program of work. The thickest string is the allocation of funds. The allocation has $5.00 going to the Water resource Inventory Area’s (WRIA) of which there are three that comprise the major drainages and river systems in the county. Green/Duwamish (WRIA 9) gets 40%, Cedar/Lake Washington (WRIA 8) gets 40% and Snohomish/Snoqualmie (WRIA 7) gets 20%. This has always been controversial in board meetings. It ties our hands by removing discretion in decisions regarding what and where projects should be pursued, but does not eliminate our fiduciary responsibility to properly spend the money.
$2.00 is allocated to the 35 jurisdictions, including King County as a whole. We have to keep track of who has what money. The smallest have very little money so they can’t do much.
The remaining $3.00 is for the districts traditional, mostly rural area, programs, staff and expenses. The ILA does allow a charge of about $200,000.00 for administration costs of the WRIA/jurisdiction programs, but we calculated that cost at over $400K, so our traditional programs are subsidizing the other programs. It was the best we could do.
The battle of the assessment, and it was a battle, was the most contentious moment of my term. I was new on the board and struggling to understand the forces and interests at work. I could not understand why we had an elected board of very serious folks (lifetime farmer, lifetime logger, former King county council member, former king county commissioner and a PHD civil engineer/rancher) who could not be trusted to act in the best interests of the citizens in the application of sound ‘on the ground’ conservation. We had legal opinions from the King County Prosecutors office and the attorney general that this was our money and our responsibility.
So after long discussion and debate a majority of the board decided we would “claim” control of our funds. We hammered out a program of work that essentially had us doing the same things with the same plan, but we removed language that held us specifically to the arrangement. Almost immediately the alarm went out that we were ‘taking’ the jurisdictions money and therefore their power and control. We got letters from various cities and the Suburban Cities Association, representing most King County incorporated cities.
Situations like this really define what’s important. “Follow the money” should be the first lesson to anyone seeking office. The “government social club”, including electeds, staff and other officials, their associations, NGO’s, contractors and generally anyone benefiting from government, began a campaign that ultimately had the King County council considering whether they would even approve the assessment. We tried to lobby the individual cities to explain what we were doing but things were so toxic by then that the message was “We’re just waiting for KCD to crash and burn” The mayor of Duvall told me that himself. Since individual jurisdictions opt in or out, that was the other message. “Do this and we will leave.”
Lesson two learned by me in all this was just how petty our esteemed electeds could be. At a point late in the adventure I realized that all their whining had all but one of the King County councilmember’s voting against the assessment. The third lesson was that the actual work of the conservation district was less important than the political pecking order. I personally came to the conclusion that the time and energy expended dealing with the ‘government social club’ was a barrier to our core mission and that we should eliminate the assessment ourselves and let the various jurisdictions decide for themselves whether or not membership was in their best interest.
Then I got the call from Kathy. I really like Kathy Lambert. As the district 3 King County Councilmember she’s smart, extremely hardworking, practical, respectful, savvy and most of all, a great representative. She endorsed me when I ran for my supervisor position and we have worked on many important issues for years.
Kathy obviously thought the destruction of the conservation district was at hand and began intensively lobbying the three conservatives on the board. We had conversations for hours that on one occasion had us talking into the wee hours of the night. It would have been easy for me to fight this out with anyone other than a staunch friend, but disagreements with friends and supporters are much more difficult. I viewed the whole affair as a ‘deal with the devil’ we were trying to fix. In the end, it was another who caved. Thank you, Kathy, for this test.
The assessment passed as it had historically with the allotment in place. The ILA and program of work are essentially unchanged. I voted against the assessment to take control of our funds, which would have meant much less revenue, but we could have eliminated the advisory committee, the ILA and the program of work. As it is, the King County Council acts as the board with us subservient and the Suburban Cities Association (SCA) competing by stacking the advisory committee. King County Executive Dow Constantine’s letter of March 2, 2010 explains “the intent of the County was and remains that the Advisory Committee be responsive to the requests made by King County and SCA in order to give it a significant role, to make it effective and to build trust…and hear from the regions elected officials and other knowledgeable persons regarding the priorities and expenditure of public funding (KCD assessment)”
Then there is the question of whether or not the assessment is even legal. Legally an assessment differs from a tax in that a direct and immediate benefit must accrue to the property charged. Lawsuits in Mason, King and Pierce counties allege that the connection is too distant and therefore is not legal. The Supreme Court will decide soon with a loss having serious ramifications to districts that use this funding source.
(June 2012 update: The Supreme Court held the Mason County Assessment illegal prompting King and Pierce Counties to settle resulting in the discontinuation of this funding mechanism.)
As I write this the economic condition of the United States is worse than at any time in the last century except the great depression of the thirties. The effective un/underemployment rate approaches 20 percent. The national debt is 15 trillion dollars with unfunded government liabilities at about 62 trillion. 42 cents of every federal dollar is printed or borrowed. The state legislature is in special session trying to deal with yet another multi-billion dollar budget shortfall. King County is in a relatively good position after cutting a few positions, programs and some employee benefits, but both county and state revenues are up substantially.
Not so with private businesses. Across the board, private revenues and employment are down drastically. Retailing, transportation, services and manufacturing have taken real reductions. Housing, real estate and construction are among the hardest hit categories. My own business (www.drewlogging.com) revenues were down 42% from 2008 to 2009, as a result of the crash. I had to severely and suddenly downsize to survive.
It is obvious to me and many others operating in the real economy that a reckoning is at hand. We as a nation have a government spending problem that is going to get fixed one way or another. Basic changes have to be made. One road leads to Greece and the other to a more prosperous and responsible destination. Every elected official with financial responsibilities on all boards of every entity across the nation is going to have to do more with less going forward. You as an elected board member should look at every grant and program with this in mind.
The WRIA programs constitute half the KCD activities by revenues. About 3 million dollars are spent on the three major river system projects. Forty per cent each on WRIA 8 (Cedar/Lake Washington) and WRIA 9 (Green/Duwamish). WRIA 7 (Snoqualmie/Snohomish ) accounts for 20 per cent.
One of the first questions I asked was why the Snoqualmie system did not get equal funds. It is arguably the best Chinook salmon (listed under ESA rules) river in the county, least impacted by development and having some of the best habitat conditions, and is the only unregulated river, meaning no dam. This question was never adequately answered. I suspect that the rural location is a factor. The Snoqualmie flows through no major urban area, unlike the Duwamish which flows through Seattle and the Cedar, which flows through Renton. Lake Washington is highly developed with virtually every lot on the lake occupied with homes, docks and yards. The Snoqualmie flows through forest and agriculture lands and four small towns. Logic would dictate that a river with superior habitat important to listed species should at least get equal funding, but politics relegates the less visible system to inferior status.
WRIA projects are mostly fish preservation and enhancement endeavors that are conducted along rivers, streams and shorelines. They are expensive and require multiple agencies issuing permits. Design, review and permitting can account for the majority of the costs. I have repeatedly asked over the last three years why design templates can’t be developed and used to reduce time and costs. If it’s really more about the fish and less about the bureaucrats and process, then why can’t more resources go to ‘on the ground’ work?
I will illustrate several projects I liked and several I didn’t like, and why.
1. Seattle Public Utilities Green Shorelines Publication. An excellent guide to shoreline development or redevelopment. Provides great ideas to landowners to improve their shoreline environments while adding to the use and value of their property. The publication inspired a restoration project on 1100 feet of Lake Washington shoreline owned jointly by 118 households known as the Western Academy of Beaux Arts. Total estimated cost is $490,000.00. The project seeks to improve habitat conditions by removing some bank armoring and restoring gradual beach gradients while preserving the private beach and boat and swim docks. This is an excellent project and I hope it moves successfully to completion. Problems that need to be addressed include the complicated permitting and long timelines. KCD awarded the first grant for this project in 2009 for initial design and then another in 2011 for permitting which will not be completed until the end of 2011. Construction won’t begin until 2012 at the earliest. It’s easy for a community to lose interest when things drag out like this. If it’s really about the fish and not about bureaucracy and process, then we need improvements here. Another problem was funding denied by SRFB, the state salmon program, due to the community not restoring ALL the shoreline, which would have meant giving up traditional uses. This is brain dead idiocy and illustrates problems in many agencies that do not recognize the importance of property rights and traditional use within the altered/built environment. I can’t think of a better way to kill good environmental projects than this attitude.
2. Salmon Watchers. Begun in 1996, the program uses volunteers to document fish runs in 50 streams and Lake Washington. It’s a great program that provides important data and education to landowners along these waterways. One problem is a statement in the project description in the latest grant application “volunteers may call their contact (or police) about anything unusual or illegal they observe”. This violates the KCD non regulatory prime directive. The trust of landowners has been cultivated over decades and must not be threatened by sponsoring a tattle tale party in the guise of environmental endeavors.
3. Invasive’s projects. KCD spends huge sums trying to control invasive plants mostly along waterways and I am not sure the money is well spent. Knotweed is a main target. It is a huge problem in upland areas also. I am not sure we are gaining the upper hand. Trying to get rid of it on my own property has been unsuccessful, but it is not spreading. We need a better alternative than the methods in use now.
4. Piner Point Bulkhead Removal. One of my least favorite grants that presents several important issues. The first is cost. The project was horrendously overpriced at $244,000.00. King County Water and Land Resources was the applicant. The proposal called for removing about 200 feet of creosote piling several feet high, building a minor seawall and restoring vegetation on the site. My own experience bidding this type of work had the project in the $30,000.00 range. King County officials could not justify the price to our satisfaction. We asked what priorities were used in their pricing model and after having to withhold their check, they stated county administration and employee union contracting factors were first considerations. Competitive bidding was not in the mix. King County applies for many KCD grants through the WRIA’s and as a member jurisdiction. This presents a conflict of interest issue because the county council approves the majority of KCD funds through the assessment. How is the KCD board going to exercise discretion demanded by our fiduciary responsibility with regard to King County agency grant applications? This incestuous formula of funding and expenditures is not transparent or accountable which violates stated KCD values.
5. Snoqualmie Forest Stewardship Program. This was a series of grants funding an ongoing program of classes directed at small forest landowners conducted by Washington State University extension and the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks. I voted against the first grant because I felt the program did not adequately address the business aspects of forestry. Forestry is my business and I specialize in small landowners, however, after an extensive e mail exchange with the WSU forester, Kevin Zobrist, about the program, I decided the vote was a mistake. I voted for the next grant. The breaking up of former industrial lands into large residential lots has created many new small forest owners who need education about their forests. I encourage continued efforts here and would like to see more emphasis on timber as a valuable asset that should be managed for a variety of values, including sales. Many landowners view their trees as their private parks and think logging never will be an option, but my experience is a storm, fire, financial need or other event will change minds. Basic education with regard to managing a timber sale will pay future dividends.
6. Big Spring Creek. I wholeheartedly support the concept of this project while completely rejecting the execution. Big Spring is located on the Enumclaw Plateau. It was diverted into roadside ditches during the ‘30’s presumably to create farmland. The project diverts the stream into an existing channel that flows through a forested wetland and then constructs a new channel that flows through wet areas on mostly private property secured by conservation easements. The lineal diversion is about 5000 feet. The project has been in the works over ten years. The main issue is cost. The $259,000.00 grant we reviewed in 2011 was for the final design. This was the third design. I asked the representative present what the final cost would be when the project was completed. He stated about 5 million dollars. That’s a thousand dollars a foot. It is an unaffordable price. The fact that federal funds will be “leveraged” to pay for most of it is unimpressive to me. Federal funds are not free funds. They are paid by all taxpayers and their liberal disbursement is leading to the bankrupting of the country. Another issue is drainage. The county would not assure the KCD board that the roadside ditches the creek presently flows through would be maintained after diversion. We felt this threatened the economy of the neighboring farms. This was the specific reason I voted against the grant.
7. Stillwater Wildlife Area Restoration. This $87,000.00 grant was to the Stilly-Snohomish Fisheries Enhancement Task Force for the purpose of restoring 3 acres of riparian plants in the vicinity of Harris Creek and the Snoqualmie River. The cost, at $29,000.00/acre, is substantially lower than our average riparian project cost of $46,000.00/acre. These numbers always seemed excessive when compared to the reforestation planting costs I deal with in my business. Forest regeneration varies depending on terrain and site prep costs, but $300.00/acre generally will cover any site. I repeatedly asked during my term why the extreme difference and never got a satisfactory answer. One action I got the board to support was a pilot project using a mini excavator to clear planting areas instead of using hand crews. As of this writing, that never did happen. The good news is that the Stillwater project was cleared with a tractor mounted mower on the grantees initiative. Brian Boehm, project coordinator, told me they are moving away from hand crews in favor of mechanization.
8. Duwamish Gardens Estuarine Restoration 2010. This project is located in the Duwamish River Estuary in a commercial area of the City of Tukwila and is a combination WRIA9/City of Tukwila jurisdiction grant. The project calls for excavating 55,000 yards of material to create 2 acres of mudflat and marsh habitat and .8 acre of upland habitat. This $53,000.00 grant is the latest in a series and will ‘help’ pay for design and permitting, estimated at $240,000.00. The first associated grants were for negotiations and acquisition in 2007. The timeline documents construction and planting completion in 2014. I don’t have a total price but information provided in the application that another $240,000.00 series of KCD grants in the acquisition phase of the project “leveraged” nearly 2 million dollars from “federal, state and other sources”. The price, extended timeline and complexity of projects like this that will restore only 3 acres in just one river system lead me to the conclusion that this is beyond our scope and understanding. Just trying to get through the scientific and technical information in this grant required twice the time I normally set aside to review all the grants presented in a typical monthly meeting. Another issue highlighted in this grant, and one that I have raised repeatedly throughout my term, was one involving a negative impact to an adjacent owner, who leases his property to a trucking company. Movement landward of the shoreline through restoration would shift the 200 foot mandatory buffer prohibiting many allowed land uses and subject that owner to increased regulation and costs. This prompted Boeing, People for Puget Sound and the Department of Ecology to go to the legislature and pass house bill 2199 on a unanimous vote to allow local governments to grant regulatory relief in these situations, but only in Urban Growth Areas. How is this narrow and limited benefit fair? Why not allow ALL property owners relief when restoration projects increase regulation? I viewed this as a callous disregard of the majority of property owners throughout the state.
9. Earth Economics. One river, three acres and millions of dollars. WRIA9 (Green/Duwamish) Salmon Habitat Plan estimates costs to implement its priority projects at between 198 and 291 million. All projects would cost 272 to 389 million. The 2005 plan executive summary states the value of eco system goods and services within WRIA boundaries is between 1.7 and 6.3 billion dollars. The Earth Economics grant was to identify “funding sources”. I argued against this grant on the basis that first, these numbers were impossible on their face, and second, the wide number range raised suspicion. Is the all projects cost 272 million, or is it 389 million? The eco system value, also generated by Earth Economics, is likewise suspect with the range being twice the base figure. This is further evidence that WRIA projects are beyond the scope and understanding of KCD. Our entire WRIA budget is 3 million dollars a year for 3 WRIAs. If WRIA9 thinks it needs 389 million to restore just one system, then KCD won’t be doing much about it. I think WRIA officials agree with me because they used the Earth Economics data in this grant as part of a proposal to create a new taxing district called a Watershed Investment District (WID). Funding sources identified in the summary of draft legislation include general property tax, sales and use tax, utility fee, per parcel assessment, real estate excise tax and pollution discharge tax. In other words, an increase in every tax we already pay, and it cost taxpayers $50,000.00 for this analysis.
Most of the money in these projects goes to bureaucrats, process, planning and study. Templates are not being developed to move ‘on the ground’ efforts along in an affordable manner. Those who fund these projects at all levels don’t subscribe to any sort of affordability reality. The region simply does not have the money to pay into these projects at this level. What should happen is a top down look at process and expenditures. Why are projects designed three times? Why don’t we have competitive bidding? Do five different agencies really need to weigh in on projects?
Each and every proposal is being studied to death like we never did this before as, it would seem to me, the ‘all academics job security’ policy. It is stunning to me that officials continue to buy into these numbers that are clearly unaffordable in this economic environment.
Jurisdiction projects are granted using that portion of funds set aside to the 35 different jurisdictions throughout King County, mostly the cities. $2.00 of the assessment collected inside each jurisdiction is set aside to be spent inside those boundaries.
1. Farmers Markets. I supported farmers markets grants mainly due to their direct economic connection to agriculture. This was a ‘no brainer’ to me in that they were generally conservative amounts, beneficial to product purchasers as well as producers and increased local farm to market visibility.
2. Rain gardens. Rain garden projects are an innovative idea put forth to address storm water problems. Instead of allowing flash drainage of runoff to enter creeks, rivers and Puget Sound, these gardens are designed to intercept and infiltrate effluent laden waters. The projects are expensive in urban environments, but surface water runoff pollution is perhaps the greatest issue the region faces with regard to the health of Puget Sound.
3. Kelsey Creek signs and Issaquah storm drain marking. Two grants approved by the board that fail to deliver ‘on the ground’ results. These outlays totaled $60,000.00 just for signage. I think this is irresponsible use of funds.
4. Conservation funds priorities. Throughout my term, I argued that KCD funds should not be spent for Surface Water Management projects mainly due to the fact that SWM taxation is 13 times that of conservation taxation. This conflict first came to my attention when the City of Woodinville applied for a grant to update their SWM manual, which was approved.
Rural area projects are the original purpose of conservation districts. KCD is somewhat unusual with their urban and WRIA activities, but this is evolving. The best results for conservation projects remain in the rural areas, even though funding here is the least. Eastern King County is the rural area with about 70% of the land area and about 7% of the population. Agricultural lands exist in the Snoqualmie Valley and on the Enumclaw Plateau with forests extending to the Cascade crest. Government and industrial landowners own most of the forest land interspersed with private ownerships at increasing rates westward to the suburban interface.
Agriculture is changing in King County with dairies increasingly failing while organic, greenhouse and specialty farming are becoming the prevalent activity. There are many horse and small cattle as well as some tree farm, row crop, grass and berry farming operations. I really enjoyed the agricultural education I received while serving on the KCD. Farming here is much different from that in Oregon’s Willamette Valley where our family (My cousins) farm once operated. Drew farms produced mostly grass seed until 1982. I remember operating a combine thrashing seed in 100 degree weather sunup to sundown and then burning the fields in the fall resulting in mushroom clouds that looked like mini nuclear explosions. The farm failed after multiple bad years, a huge inheritance tax bill and then the county not allowing a relatively minor land sale for residential development that would have paid the debts. An unintended consequence of diminished property rights after three generations of farming. A very bitter pill to swallow. (Update June 2012: Oregon Gov John Kitzhaber signed executive order 12-07, allowing three Oregon counties to plan locally without the influence of state laws directing centralized planning. The change was directly attributable to Oregonians In Action, the equivalent organization to CAPR in Washington and California.)
The main ag issues we dealt with had to do with drainage, wetland enhancement that displaced farming and the Voluntary Stewardship Program. Drainage is critical to farmland. The ditches, culverts, tile lines and streams have to be regularly maintained or the land will not support crops, livestock and machinery. When endangered fish use the ditches, what used to be a simple task now requires permitting, fish removal and complicated planning. KCD has a program to assist farmers, but it is limited and expensive. I took time to visit one of our projects in the Ames creek drainage. The ditch was a deep cut through row crop fields with water waist high. Two guys were shocking and catching fish which were being counted as part of a survey. The bill for their services was in the thousands, paid for by taxpayers. I came away from that visit thinking that if this was the best we could come do, drainage and farming in the Valley were sure to suffer.
Ditch maintenance I observed near Snohomish was completely different. A 90,000lb excavator with a large mud bucket was cleaning sediment and vegetation in deep ditches through bottom lands south of the Snohomish River. A dozer was grading out the diggings onto the field (We have to haul it away in King County). Judging from the fresh tracks, that excavator was moving right along suggesting costs were reasonable. Even though the same endangered fish and river system are in both counties, Snohomish has a drainage district form of local government that apparently exempts them from the expense and actions required in King County. Why can’t King County farmers benefit from this program?
Wetland mitigation and enhancement projects on ag zoned lands was another controversial issue that I dealt with as a KCD supervisor and as a Citizens Alliance for Property Rights (CAPR) board member. Usually made possible by outside funding, these projects displace present and future agricultural production. Sometimes potential damages can threaten much more as was the case of a project on the King/Snohomish County line adjacent to the Snoqualmie River. The tree planting project was the work of Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) who did not talk to KCD or Snohomish CD. They planted trees in the floodplain and floodway of the river. This latest project was the last in wall to wall ‘enhancement’ projects that will have two devastating effects, disrupt floodwater flow making upstream impacts worse, and exacerbate drainage rendering surrounding farmland less or totally worthless. The KCD board action was a letter. Federal authorities are at the same time allowing contractors to lower and widen Snoqualmie Falls, about 16 miles upstream, to allow more water flow during flood events. Lowland landowners may be devastated by an unregulated (no dam) river capable of 85,000 cubic feet per second flows.
The Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) was an issue that surfaced right at the end of my term. VSP came out of the Ruckelshaus process, a university sponsored negotiation process designed to find solutions to difficult problems. VSP lets counties op in to the program or they must enforce tough environmental rules with huge buffers mandated by the state’s Growth Management Act. The situation came about after Initiative 933, sponsored by the Washington Farm Bureau and substantially supported by CAPR, garnered 42% of the vote. The initiative would have stripped government of law making authority that further reduced property values, or compensation would be required. This was the reaction to years of regulatory actions affecting landowners use and value of their property. The campaign failed to raise enough money for an advertising effort explaining our side of the issue. I remember one Auburn city councilmember saying at a board meeting “If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu”. This was the same city that down zoned hundreds of commercial properties as a part of the city ‘vision’ that cost owners about $10 million in value two weeks after the initiative failed. The VSP is controversial in that many feel it doesn’t deliver benefits at a meaningful level. There is little reason why the process should have taken years to come up with the option of either enforcing CAO’s with known and harmful economic impacts or something that might be better. From the Puget Sound action Agenda:
C3.1 NTA 3: Voluntary Stewardship Program. The Conservation Commission, Ecology, and WSDA should support implementation, funding, and assistance to those Counties participating in the Voluntary Stewardship program, as well as new capacity for enforcement of state and federal water quality regulations.
New capacity for enforcement to support federal and state water quality standards and it comes with adaptive management. Adaptive management is also in the Fish and Forest law, discussed later. This is the continuing study of the particular associated problem that prompted the regulation with the idea of bringing on new rules as necessary. In the forest practices case, which is now 11 years old, stream buffer timber density was increased from 285 basal area per acre to 325 to achieve a newly desired future condition. The increase made the overstocked stand template plan, a marginal small landowner option, completely worthless. Whether VSP helps farmers stay in business will depend on execution. If I were a farmer, I would limit or delay my future investment decisions.
Forestry in King County is a conservation issue in which the KCD should have a leading role. Virtually all the other CD’s in the state have leading programs where forests exist. Not so in King County due mainly to the fact that the County itself has a program. The King County program is not effective, in my opinion, because the emphasis lacks important economic factors. Forestry is my business. I have made a career buying and cutting timber mostly from private landowners. I know this subject well. The most disappointing aspect of my term was failure to develop an effective forestry program aimed at ‘interface’ (small landowners closest to the suburban interface) forest landowners.
Most forestland in the county is owned by government and industrial landowners. Alpine Lakes Wilderness, US Forest Service, state DNR and a variety of timber management companies own most of the lands from the Cascade crest westward. These are professionally managed lands already and don’t need forestry services KCD might render. There are about 2500 parcels in the ‘interface’ that are managed, or not, by many individual landowners. These folks could use forestry services that are not presently provided at anywhere near the level needed. Many are new forest owners who purchased parcels created by industry disinvestment.
There are two associations that represent the majority of private forest landowners throughout the state. The well financed Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA) represents industrial landowners. The Washington Farm Forestry Association (WFFA) represents individuals. The most controversial law of recent history is the Fish and Forest law. The 1999 law mandates extensive buffers along fish bearing streams where limited or no timber cutting is allowed. Both associations supported the law at different levels after small forest landowners were to be compensated for leave timber, called the Forest Riparian Easement Program (FREP). There was carefully crafted language allowing for compensation to avoid ‘takings’ cases. No one seemed to notice the language in the fine print exempting the state from payments if monies were not available. As of this writing there are $10 million dollars in claims unpaid with many more not filed with little hope of payment. This represents a horrendous dishonor to landowners across the state. Promises made but not delivered on. Substantial efforts were made to bring relief through legal action to these landowners but even with this level of injustice there was insufficient support to follow through. This situation will be blight on this state for years. The situation is being further aggravated by increasingly lesser streams being classified ‘fish bearing”. Many small seasonal and ephemeral streams that previously were considered ‘no fish’ are being over classified.
The effects of these poor policies and broken promises will manifest negatively mostly through forestland conversion. I can illustrate this by my own recent story where I probably owe the radical environmental community a debt of gratitude. Had it not been for the piling on of these regulations, the best contract of my 40 year career may not have happened. One of the largest private non industrial landowners in King and Snohomish counties took me out to what would become the first of a series of parcels that ended up being contracts totaling about 7 million board feet (almost 2000 truckloads) that kept my little logging company busy for almost four years. The contracts paid for college educations, a wedding, a variety of debts and loans, updated my equipment and vehicles and made the worst recession of recent times an easy trip. The first parcel comes off the mandatory 6 year development moratorium in 2013. If there is a decent real estate market then, I expect to see the land developed into residential lots, because the landowner is done growing trees. A better policy would have been managed buffers allowing more return on his 50 year investment.
KCD Forestry program? Why would KCD serve interface forestry more effectively than King County government? A number of reasons, including culture, cost and structural differences at each agency. First off it makes absolutely no sense to have a program at both agencies which are both supported by county property tax charges. King County is an agency focused on regulating development and land use with fees and charges oriented to those activities. Recent changes to state law had counties removing themselves as lead agencies reviewing some forestry activities in favor of state DNR, the traditional forestry authority. KCD is not a regulatory agency and is already focused and trained to write farm plans. Forest management plans look at many of the same issues. There are differences, but the transition would generally be easy.
The KCD program I envision would do much more than write forest management plans. Logging operators would join a program that would provide training and agree to operate under district prescriptions defined by best management practices in return for being listed as a preferred operator. The training would be paid for by the operator and include recognition of conservation opportunities in which the landowner may be able to qualify for cost share grants administered by the district. What better way to increase district effectiveness than having job seeking operators canvassing forest landowners and then explaining the program? Besides selling logs, operators might look for thinning jobs, fish passage projects, stream restoration, and bringing forest roads to required standards. There would have to be good accounting and separation of the private and public aspects of jobs with cost shares with appropriate approvals to insure transparency. Publicly employed foresters would have to limit their activities so as not to compete with private consulting foresters.
King County government would benefit by being able to eliminate an activity with the associated savings. The district should ask the county for a portion of the funds on a sliding scale to get the new program going. Eventually the program has to pay for itself through fees charged to the operators and a small portion charged to programs directly connected to the benefits. Success would depend on the execution. One forester with industry skills would be necessary along with templates and programmatic permits for specific activities including working in stream channels and thinning formulas tied to specie and soil conditions. There would probably be kinks to be worked out but results could be dramatic with good cooperation.
Landowner Incentive Program. Great program for solving relatively easy and common problems such as drainage, high use livestock areas, fencing around critical areas and manure disposal. The program reaches many people with mostly small cost share grants. This program defines the heart of the conservation district.
Streams. KCD should have a better program for dealing with streams, especially minor ones when it comes to restoration. A senior staffer at the district explained to me the district’s practice of not working in the channels but concentrating on the bank vegetation due to the fact that permits were so difficult. This makes no sense to me. If public investment in restoration projects is worthy then we have to have better and cheaper ways to accomplish the projects. Templates and programmatic permits need development or we won’t make much difference on the ground.
Elections. The KCD elections were a source of constant complaint throughout my term. The process dates back to the ‘30’s when districts were first formed. The simple paper ballot cast at area libraries throughout the county and at times not associated with the general election had low turnout and complaints of ‘stealth election process’ meaning disenfranchisement. Change to the general election means charges we can’t afford or justify.
Bill Sherman, a Seattle attorney and board member of Washington Conservation voters, wrote a Seattle Times op-ed on March 11, 2010 in which he summarized the complaints. He referred to my election and that of other CAPR sponsored candidates branding us ‘property rights extremists’. Having been published in two Times editorials on varying subjects, I found it interesting that the Times did not exercise editorial discretion and remove the prejudiced comment. One of my editorials was written partly to support a statewide candidate and there was considerable discussion of the timing and facts in that piece. I felt this had a negative impact on our candidate that was clearly biased. Our candidate was narrowly defeated in that election. The Seattle Times knows, or should know that CAPR is not extremist but is in fact an effective and dedicated organization advocating for traditional rights that have defined our country from the beginning.
KCD attempted to address the election controversy by being the first internet election in the county. I voted for the change and have since concluded it was a mistake due to the fact that many rural and computer illiterate people were left out of the vote. We should return to the old system and ignore the complaints.
Agency Cultures. When I first considered running for the Supervisor position, I had no idea how complex KCD was. It wasn’t until I started that the full scope of activities began to be revealed to me. I take away different impressions of the various federal, State and local government agencies, some of which I have dealt with previously.
King County has been mostly adversarial. As a conservative rural landowner, I have been fighting King County policies all of my activist life. Politics in this county are defined by the Seattle liberal mindset which is at odds with most of my reality and beliefs. Land use policies such as down zoning, unreasonable restrictions, permitting and high property taxes have resulted in constant aggravation. I’m beginning to see a few changes in attitudes and actions, although I think it has more to do with the financial situation the county finds itself in now and going forward rather than much I or my activist friends have done.
Natural Resources Conservation Service ( NRCS) is KCD’s direct federal connection. There were only a few visits by their representatives during my term and my impression of them is that they are not very active in western Washington. My understanding is that they handle the science and standards we operate by. They also handle the soil surveys which I have used in my forestry business. They seem like a fairly sleepy federal agency.
Army Corp of Engineers has submitted grant application requests to KCD on mostly WRIA river project applications. The projects were always expensive and loaded with complicated design and construction costs that I often found far higher than anything I experience in my business. They would usually wait until the last minute on grants that we would have to approve or risk losing matching funds from some other source. I have less than pleasant impressions of this organization tempered only by thoughts that the projects were beyond our scope and understanding anyway.
US Forest Service. I only remember one visit from the forest service and can’t remember why. I have extensive experience dealing with the forest service having logged on federal lands mostly early in my career. The last sale, near White Pass in the Naches ranger district in 1995, was a financial disaster, but I did receive compliments from the ranger on the condition of the sale when we were done. This will probably be the last sale of this type I will do. Lately I am beginning to hear there is interest in a renewed timber sale program. Be interesting to see what that may look like.
EPA. The only contact with EPA was a presentation on a series of grants they awarded in Washington State that I believe were part of the stimulus. One was for the Department of Ecology to study upland stream sediment sources on forest land to develop regulations. Since I knew the regulations were already published and in force because I was arguing almost daily that winter with the DNR forester over two streamside road crossings, I viewed this grant as blatant payroll padding.
Washington State Conservation Commission. The state organization charged with administering districts across the state. They also disburse state contributions that make up a small portion of our budget.
Department of Ecology. I viewed a video of a get together of conservation district officials across the state in which Rich Baden, from the Spokane CD, commented that ecology were our ‘partners’. I sent an email to Mark Clark, executive director of the conservation commission, asking if this was their position. He said the “voluntary approach needs a regulatory backstop”.
Ecology is the devil to those of us trying to preserve property rights in this state. The agency is behind proposals and regulations that seek to put nearly every shoreline property into non conforming status, eliminate water availability to users in many counties, and are behind policies that over classify wetlands, streams and other areas across the state. Their stream sedimentation regulations are impossible and threaten the forest products industry with further decline. I attended a meeting recently in Carnation and listened to Ecology officials propose buffers along the Snoqualmie River to deal with water temperature issues and then ignore my questions about removing the large gravel buildups in the river that would be effective in dealing with the temperature problem while providing bank erosion benefits. The agency has no landowner friendly ethic and therefore cannot be ‘partners’ with conservation districts unless the districts are willing to ignore their non regulatory cooperative prime directive. There has to be a well defined wall between the conservation districts and Ecology.
Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) I deal with DNR regularly as they are the forest practice authority. The agency receives generally high marks in that they are professional and practical. That’s not to say we don’t argue over some issues, but there is mutual cooperation in problem solving. The forest products industry has made great efforts to be good stewards of resources by efforts like my recent audit by the Sustainable Forestry Ibhgnitiative. The program looks at logging practices on completed jobs and then grades the performance. The industry has made great strides over my 40 year perspective to improve standards. Forest product companies have not received the credit they deserve for these efforts.
Puget Sound Partnership. The state agency charged with cleaning up Puget Sound will define environmental policy for the next decade or more. The action agenda, published in 2008 and updated in 2012, defines the problems and the actions proposed. I would argue the plan is far too complicated, overreaching and expensive. It is a centralized, top down scheme loaded with hammers in the form of mandates and regulation diametrically opposed to CD’s prime directive of trust and cooperation. It is the culmination of nearly every item on the government wish list of land controls dreamed up in the last 30 years. The agenda does not properly prioritize the problem, which is mainly urban originated pollution. Conflicts exist such as the need to maintain forest cover while defining forest practices as threats.
A video overview was aired by the Public Broadcasting System program Frontline entitled “Poisoned Waters”. Hedrick Smith looked at two urban area waterways, Chesapeake Bay on the east coast and Puget Sound. The video www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/poisonedwaters/view/ ran April21, 2009. Activists, scientists and government officials were interviewed. The Puget Sound portion talks about degraded water quality, toxins present, and the future of iconic species such as the Orcas. Urban areas are looked at such as the 5 mile long Duwamish River industrial corridor, home to many companies, including Boeing. Boeing has spent $80 million (as of 2009) cleaning up their legacy pollution. City of Seattle and other users are also on the hook. Seattle is suing Boeing over sources and responsibility. EPA wants more done. The need for jobs and industry versus a clean river has to be balanced. Cooperation will be more effective than lawsuits.
Two major sources of urban pollution are combined sewage outflow (CSO) and storm water. The video production documents the outflow from numerous drain pipes spewing brown fluid. Jay Manning, Ecology director, stated that storm water carried pollution was equivalent to an “Exxon Valdez spill every two years”. I know CSO’s are being addressed from presentations we heard during my term, but I have heard little about relatively simple and inexpensive ideas addressing storm water runoff. Rain gardens are one idea previously covered, but how about filtering systems near sources of runoff? I know the volumes are huge, but it seems to me that primary treatment could be effective. I heard of no experiments or grants to this end.
The final part of the PBS video deals with rural area issues. CAPR members, including myself, were interviewed as were Ron Simms, King County executive. CAPR came into existence due to heavy handed and idiotic land use policy pushed by liberal environmental extremists based in Seattle. The organization has raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight government actions that far exceeded impacts to the environment by the rural population. CAPR and Pacific Legal Foundation successfully threw out the 65% clearing provisions of the Critical Areas ordinance (CAO). The law had rural landowners giving up two thirds of their property to get permits to use the other. I remain unconvinced that rural land use impacts to Puget Sound are anywhere close to proportional to the regulation forced on the rural population. The CD’s prime directive of landowner friendly cooperation would have been much more cost effective than the revenues expended in legal actions.
The action agenda talks a lot about climate change impacts as if it’s a done deal. Many scientists think the greater threat may be another ice age. There is no denying that ten thousand years ago, a mile thick slab of ice sat on top of Puget Sound. How could the Vikings farm Iceland around the year 1000? What about the little ice age?
The action agenda discusses several forestry and forest land issues. Forest practices are listed as threats in several geographic areas high in harvests, while retention of forest lands is listed as important. The point I would make here is the best way to retain forests is their economic value to landowners which cannot be realized without forest practices. DNR funding challenges is mentioned in the context of studies and management efforts. DNR exists by funding principally provided by harvest of state trust lands. No harvest, no funds. Forest roads and associated runoff is a significant subject. The state has already dealt with this in the RMAP law. Now Ecology and DNR are over enforcing by mandating a perfect standard. This will further add to degradation of the forest products industry, forest products infrastructure and eventually forest land retention.
Incentive based landowner conservation is mentioned with the Forest Riparian Easement Program (FREP). I covered this program earlier. How can the agenda list this failed disgrace of a program?
The new state law allowing purchase of forestland using bond funding is very disturbing. Giving bureaucrats and NGO’s the power to indebt future generations will not end well. The advertising is that forest income will pay the bonds. This won’t happen. ‘Environmental benefits’ will simply be priced to make these projects look good.
What is needed are increased harvests, an expanded forest land base and new infrastructure. The National Forests are in dismal shape since their harvest program was limited. New harvests would generate incomes that would address many problems including forest health and rural income.
The action agenda encourages new development in urban growth areas. This has more to do with the pervasive Agenda 21 (UN Agenda 21 first presented at the Rio summit in 1992) groupthink I see in numerous government documents and policies. How would Puget Sound benefit by more people concentrated in the worst polluting areas?
The massive down zoning of the rural areas means less than I home per 5 acres. The low density and small population yields less environmental impacts.
Action agenda items that are land use and development related and are generally Ecology initiatives include:
In-stream flows. Ecology is controlling water withdrawals by establishing in-stream flow and aquifer requirements. They have shut down residential development in the upper Kittitas County by refusing to issue well permits. That could also happen in the Puget Sound area.
Shoreline Buffering/Armoring. New Shoreline Master Plans are establishing buffers on landowners that render all or most of their land non conforming use. This immediately devalues their property, makes it hard to insure and finance while limiting future expansion. Armoring will be more difficult to build and maintain with the new rules.
On-site sewage systems (OSS). OSS are a major initiative even though the municipal systems are by far the main problem.
Woodstoves. Woodstoves are increasingly demonized due to particulate matter pollution. Stoves are a major home heating source not dependent on outside infrastructure. The security and independence they provide, especially to rural residents, will not be given up easily.
King County streams. The action agenda lists King County stream efforts to protect the best remaining streams and map, prioritize and restore the degraded ones. This should be done by King County providing funding to KCD. KCD has a long history of approving grants like the one that identified and classified 36 miles of South King County streams shortly before my term began. Any forest practice applied for requires landowners to identify and classify streams on their property. Many streams are already classified, but much of the data may not be accurate. The organization that classified the south county streams also initially classified three streams on a Duvall area property that I logged. All streams were over classified. It took me a year to correct two and the third is still a pending issue. As discussed earlier, templates and programmatic permits incorporated into a KCD forestry program could have dramatic results in stream restoration.
Warnings for the future. There is currently an effort underway to create Watershed Investment districts (WID) to fund future river restoration projects. As discussed previously, these projects demand astronomical amounts of funding that the region cannot afford. The mechanism is already in force in the Surface Water Management (SWM) and Flood District countywide taxation schemes. The two current programs tax landowners about $50 million a year and yield questionable benefits. The SWM program is the oldest, having its inception under Randy Revelle’s administration in the early ‘80’s. The program was supposed to address flooding issues first in May Valley. Flooding is worse today in that valley, but the program is now a major revenue stream.
My 40 year business perspective. I remember arguments I had with old time production loggers when I first started logging in the early ‘70’s. I objected to practices I saw and heard about that included turning Salmon bearing streams loose on newly pioneered roads to wash off the mud so log hauling could promptly begin, building forest roads on slopes when it was not a question of if, but when, those roads would slide off. Clear cutting whole mountains at a time with the resulting erosion and degradation. Those practices are now a relic of the past as is the era of that particular breed of logger. I’ve witnessed so many changes in attitudes and practices over the years and now I find myself mostly on the other side of the argument. Industry has to exist to provide the jobs and income needed for people to make a living. Wise use of resources balanced to an altered/built environment is crucial.
It was a great experience standing for election and serving my term as Supervisor. I learned much in this three year interaction and met many great people. I view my successful election as an honor. I went to great effort to serve in a constructive way and I hope the people I met along the way think I made a contribution. My best wishes for you on a successful term as KCD Supervisor.