Broad coalition says thousands of acres of habitat threatened as federal administrative error in key conservation program threatens future of critical salmon habitat restoration projects

EVERSON, Wash. – In a new letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, a coalition of farmers and environmental advocates is asking for urgent state support to save a conservation program hit by a wave of project cancellations, thanks to an administrative error at the federal Farm Service Agency.

The coalition says they’re turning to Inslee for help not only to protect the riparian salmon habitat restoration work that’s already been done, but also to “help prevent a massive erosion of trust” by groups and landowners involved in ongoing conservation efforts. In the letter, the groups are asking for $2M over the next two years to protect the habitat that’s been restored, and to “buy time to better understand and address” the issues the conservation program faces.

Riparian buffers are an essential element in supporting salmon recovery. Farmers were compensated for part of the value of productive farmland near waterways converted into buffers planted with trees and bushes that would provide shade and other habitat benefits.

Jon Wyss, the Washington state head of the Farm Service Agency under the USDA, explained to farmers in an August 24 webinar that years ago, state-level administrators for the agency made a key change to criteria for eligible streams, but failed to get approval at the federal level. Because of that lapse, many current contracts are on streams that don’t meet the older federal criteria, and are now deemed out of compliance.

The program that funds and develops these buffers is called the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP. Over the past 25 years, about 925 miles of riparian habitat has been restored in Washington – a distance from Seattle to the Grand Canyon. The program is managed by the Washington State Conservation Commission through Conservation District offices throughout the state.

Fred Likkel, Executive Director of Whatcom Family Farmers and interim Executive Director of Save Family Farming said initially farmers were shocked at being told their contracts were being canceled. “This could break some of our farmers,” Likkel said. “Farmers did nothing wrong, but then were told they were no longer getting compensated for their farmland being used for habitat.”

“Farmers don’t want to lose the habitat,” Likkel said. “They don’t get enough for it to compensate for the loss of production, but working to improve fish recovery is very important to farmers.” Farmers were told in the FSA webinar that they could apply to other state programs for funds, but farmers note that the compensation under these is considerably less.