Many of you in the agricultural community have likely heard of the Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP), but may be unclear as to what it is, how it works, and why it is important. I am writing this article as the Douglas County VSP Coordinator at Foster Creek Conservation District to get the word out to everyone who operates in Douglas County about the importance of VSP. I say everyone, because every single agricultural operator in the county is affected by VSP.
VSP was created as an agriculturally friendly alternative approach to regulatory protection of critical areas. As concise as possible, the Voluntary Stewardship Program aims to protect critical areas (wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, geologically hazardous areas, frequently flooded areas, and areas with critical recharging effect of aquifers used for potable water) where they intersect with agricultural activities, through voluntary, incentive-based measures, while at the same time improving the long term viability of agriculture. What does that all that mean for us here in Douglas County? Well, as the entirety of the county is part of a wildlife habitat conservation area, every agricultural operation in the county is eligible to participate in VSP, or conversely, to be subject to the regulations of the alternative.
To illustrate the importance of the success of VSP to our county, it is important that everyone is aware of what that alternative is. If the Voluntary Stewardship Program should fail in Douglas County, agricultural operators would be subject to the Critical Area Ordinances of the Growth Management Act. This is a regulatory approach to critical area protection, and is something that producers in this county have never been subject to. It means that every operator in the county may be required to obtain a permit whenever changes are made to their operation; it means that any damage to a critical area would have to be offset at the operator’s expense; it means the potential for mandatory no-touch buffers; it requires protection at the parcel level, meaning regulators stopping by to check on your operation; it means time, money, hassle, and uncertainty.
Now that we all agree VSP should succeed, let’s talk about how we make it happen. The first step is to account for all of the good things that you are already doing out there. Every watering facility developed and toadflax sprayed on your own dime or through cost-share counts towards showing that we, as a county, are protecting our critical areas. To account for this, my hope is that every producer in the county will respond to a VSP survey that I will send out in the near future and once every 2-5 years thereafter. The survey will be short and sweet and will simply ask what conservation programs and activities you are involved in, and what types of activities you are interested in implementing in the future. One of the great things about VSP is that reporting occurs on the county scale. This means that I will be the only one who sees your name on the survey, and I will then roll that data up so everyone else will just see the total number of conservation activities occurring in the county with no names attached. Foster Creek Conservation District will use the survey results to secure cost share dollars for the activities that you, the producers, are interested in and will benefit your operation. We will only use your contact information to inform you when cost share dollars become available for an activity you are interested in. In addition, VSP will offer individual stewardship plans, assistance in applying for an Incidental Take Permit, workshops, trainings, technical advice, and others services that you might be interested in, all at no cost to you.
The development of the Douglas County VSP work plan is currently underway. A work group tasked with developing a plan that accomplishes the duel goals of protecting critical areas and improving the long-term viability of agriculture has been meeting once a month since late summer 2016. We are anticipating a completed draft of the work plan by the end of the calendar year. All interested stakeholders are invited to attend and participate in the work group meetings. The meetings are open to public involvement and comment, and commitment to serve on the work group is not required.
Please take advantage of this great program. I am creating a VSP producer contact list that will allow me to share important VSP related information, such as the survey, with you. Please send me an email, snail mail, or phone call with your information and preferred method of contact. I look forward to working with you!
Voluntary Stewardship Program Coordinator
Foster Creek Conservation District
203 s. Rainier St. Waterville, WA 98858