On Thursday, August 24th, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced that they will be restructuring or canceling up to 334 Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) contracts with working landowners across the state beginning October 1, 2023.
Whatcom Family Farmers, together with a coalition of farmers and environmental advocates, are asking Governor Jay Inslee for urgent action to protect existing riparian salmon habitat restoration work done through this program, and to help prevent a massive erosion of trust by groups and landowners involved in ongoing conservation efforts.
The letter in its entirety has been posted below:
September 19, 2023
RE: Urgent Request to Resolve Threats to Riparian Buffer Initiatives
Dear Governor Inslee,
Our broad coalition of partners from the agricultural community and environmental organizations are writing to you seeking urgent support from the state to help prevent a massive erosion of trust in voluntary, government-backed riparian buffer initiatives. Recent actions by federal partners have put the entire effort to install riparian buffers on working lands at risk, right as over $80 million in new state and federal investments are poised to address this urgent need.
On Thursday, August 24th, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced that they will be restructuring or canceling up to 334 Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) contracts with working landowners across the state beginning October 1, 2023. This has understandably caused confusion and outrage amongst affected landowners and across the agricultural community. FSA has provided varying numbers in terms of the impact of these cancellations, but coarse estimates indicate that up to 7,000 acres of riparian buffers and 400 hundred stream miles may be at risk, not to mention the acreage and stream miles that might otherwise be enrolled in the future. In Whatcom County alone, these cancellations will impact over 200 landowners, an estimated 1,500 acres of riparian buffers, and 120 stream miles. Financially, this undermines $12 million of federal investments over the next 14-years.
For many landowners, this loss of income translates into tangible economic hardship. In many circumstances, this land was previously used to harvest crops or feed animals, providing a valuable benefit to farmers and the community. These goods provided dollars that were used to pay bills and reinvest into the community. These landowners willingly invested into helping recover salmon habitat but need to replace the value derived from converting land. The cancellation of these contracts breaks a social contract for generations to come. To prevent this, we respectfully request that you make an emergency commitment to invest approximately $2.0 million over the next biennium to keep these needed payments in place. While this emergency investment will not resolve the issues entirely, it will buy time to better understand and address them.
These cancellations are not due to mistakes or violations by the landowners or the state agencies that have long been providing matching funds to support these efforts. The riparian buffers that have been installed because of these leveraged funds have been delivering water quality, carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, habitat, and other benefits to diverse species, including listed salmonids. We believe that the eligibility criteria for CREP enrollment are too restrictive and stand at odds with the best available science and what we know about salmon recovery.
The timing of this action could not be worse. The Farm Bill expires September 30th and we have been told that there is relatively nothing our coalition of partners can do to change the course of action that FSA is taking. As mentioned before, this is happening on the cusp of the state launch of $50 million in new riparian buffer programs through the Recreation and Conservation Office and the State Conservation Commission and $30 million in EPA dollars to support the Puget Sound Climate Resilient Riparian Systems Lead. As bad press and word of mouth news spreads, this threatens to make it nearly impossible to get new landowners to opt-in to these programs.
This unfortunate situation helps highlight the fragility of our long-term efforts to install and maintain riparian buffers. We recognize that the emergency funds we are requesting do not fix that fragility, but we do believe that it will underpin a growing effort to develop a compelling package of incentives that can provide meaningful support to landowners while restoring key watershed functions and benefits. With efforts underway to explore market mechanisms and innovative finance such as carbon credits and environmental services credits to add private sector incentives to these funding needs, there are numerous opportunities to find new ways to fund and maintain these riparian buffers.
Right when we should be building momentum for these efforts, the FSA actions send the wrong signal at the wrong time to landowners and undermines trust in all government programs and promises. To summarize our key concerns:
- The rapid rollout of information and disenrollment notification have not provided adequate time for solution generation. FSA still lacks a clear understanding of the impacts.
- Voluntary incentive programs are founded on trust and faith in agreements. If unaddressed, this trust will be broken, and the viability of future initiatives will be placed at extreme risk.
- Significant government resources have been and are slated to be expended in support of riparian initiatives through focused state and federal investments, roundtable convenings, the Climate Commitment Act and other capital funding programs. At a time when we need people to come together to forge efficient, viable, and mutually beneficial solutions, goodwill is being destroyed.
- Watersheds are connected and every tributary has an impact on water quality. Waterways that feed into salmon-bearing streams are critically important, and the eligibility focus on solely salmon-bearing streams is shortsighted and ignores the best available science.
- Perceptions of unreliability of federal funders may undermine novel investors and efforts to launch innovative financing schemes that are in everyone’s interest.
At a moment of crisis we recognize the opportunity before us: the state can seize this moment to communicate directly to landowners, tribes, agencies and the community at large that you recognize the importance of this work and the challenge of this moment. We urgently request that:
- The state commits to honoring matching funds that would have been paid through the CREP contracts that are now deemed ineligible, beginning with an emergency investment of approximately $2.0 million over the next two years to fill the gap left by FSA.
- The state initiates a coordinated effort to understand these issues, communicate concerns to FSA, and devise durable solutions to resolve these issues that threaten salmon recovery and agricultural viability.
By providing shade, habitat, and water quality improvements to public, salmon-bearing streams, these buffers are a significant public benefit. At a time when working landowners, local implementation organizations, state agencies, and other federal partners can least afford it, these actions by FSA put not only the past 20-years of work at risk, but also the next 20-years as well.
We look forward to working with you on this challenge.