The Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) is an alternative to the Growth Management Act (GMA) and its Critical Areas Ordinance requirements. But there are essential differences between the two. First, under VSP, priority is given to protecting both critical areas and the viability of agriculture. Second, VSP is a voluntary process to protect critical areas and maintain the viability of agriculture, while GMA is a regulatory system. In Walla Walla County, the five types of critical areas subject to VSP are wetlands, frequently flooded areas, aquifer recharge areas, geologically hazardous areas, and habitat. Only those critical areas that intersect with agriculture activities will be addressed under VSP. The Walla Walla VSP Work Plan has been approved by the state! Please go to the Resources page to see more details about the Walla Walla VSP Work Plan.
Participation in VSP is easy. Once a producer contacts the district, a meeting time will be arranged. District staff will use county maps to show the producer the critical areas on his or her ag. ground. A technician will help fill out the VSP checklist, listing the conservation practices already being implemented. The technician can help identify what additional practices could be used to further protect the areas and what cost share might be available to aid in that transition. The conservation practices being implemented will be tallied in an aggregate fashion, not per individual, because under VSP, protection and progress are measured on a county-wide basis. For example, in 2011 (the baseline year) there were 3140 acres of riparian forest buffer documented. The protection goal for this critical area (Fish and Wildlife Habitat) is no net loss over 10% from 2011 to 2012. As long as the county is able to demonstrate no net loss in riparian buffers, this goal of the Work Plan will be met. The process is simple and participation is vitally important if ag. producers want to avoid the one-size-fits-all regulations of the Critical Areas Ordinance.
Walla Walla County opted into the VSP process in 2012 and in 2016 the legislature fully funded VSP for the entire state. The county elected to have the Walla Walla County Conservation District direct the program. Under the VSP process, a local Watershed Work Group guided the development of the county work plan. Our group has representatives from the agriculture community (including livestock), tribal and environmental representatives, and other stakeholders. The county work plan includes, among other things, a list of the critical areas subject to VSP, an outreach plan, and benchmarks or goals for the county. The process is guided by the Washington Conservation Commission; more information on the VSP process can be found at their website: http://scc.wa.gov/voluntary-stewardship-program/. The Voluntary Stewardship Program is intended to give local land users a strong say in developing a plan that respects critical areas while maintaining the viability of agriculture in their community.
While the plan was under development, the Work Group met regularly. Now there will be an annual meeting to report progress. The minutes of recent meetings are listed below.
Frequently asked questions:
What is the Voluntary Stewardship Program? Most counties in Washington State exempted agriculture lands from the Critical Areas Ordinance(CAO) regulations of the Growth Management Act. During litigation over the GMA, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that agriculture cannot be exempted from CAO regulation. Faced with potential lawsuits over the agriculture exemption, the legislature and stakeholders came up with VSP as an alternative to GMA. With VSP, the important environmental protections of CAO are achieved, not by regulation and enforcement, but by voluntary actions of area farmers.
How will VSP work? The legislation requires counties to develop work plans that set broad goals or benchmarks for critical areas. An example of a benchmark might be to increase the number of trees per acre on farmland bordering Walla Walla rivers and streams. The work plan would then include a description of how this goal is to be met through voluntary participation by area farmers. Participating farmers will receive individual farm plans, and implementing these plans will help the county meet the benchmarks.
Are farmers required to participate? No. Voluntary is a key element of VSP. There are no requirements for individuals; rather, there is a requirement that the county meet the benchmarks. If a majority of the area farmers participate, then the goals will be met.
Are there consequences if the county doesn’t meet its goals? Yes. Under VSP, the county, through the Watershed Work Group, will be required to implement the plan developed by the VSP work group. Over time, progress towards meeting the benchmarks will be tracked. If the county fails to meet the benchmarks, the county must revert to the heavy regulation and enforcement of the Growth Management Act and the Critical Areas Ordinance.
Are there benefits to individual farmers? Of course! VSP also requires that the viability of agriculture be maintained. Under VSP, the future of farming is more secure in our county, because it sets forth as a given that the viability of agriculture is just as important a consideration as protection of critical areas.
How is the Conservation District involved? Walla Walla County commissioners selected the district as the lead agency to direct the VSP process. District staff will be facilitating the work under the direction of the local work group.