Washington State Conservation Commission and Districts at Risk in State Budget

February 23rd, 2012 in Conservation Incentives, Government Spending

Washington State’s 73 year old system for voluntary, incentive-based environmental conservation on private lands is at risk!

Legislators are proposing to eliminate the State Conservation Commission and to dramatically reduce funding for the 47 independent conservation districts that help landowners, statewide, implement sound environmental stewardship on millions of acres of private land.

In the proposed supplemental budget from the Washington House Ways and Means Committee (PSHB 2127 – page 83 of Agency Detail), the nationally acclaimed Washington State Conservation Commission would disappear and funding for its functions would be cut by up to 50% with those functions that remain transferred to the Department of Agriculture (DOA).

Much of the funding for conservation districts would also go.  Those that receive local property tax assessments or that can eke out a limited existence through diminishing public and private grants may survive.  But many of the districts could also die.  And all will be much diminished.  This proposed budget goes dramatically beyond the 10% cut in the Commission budget that was proposed by the Washington Governor.

To place whatever survives of the Commission’s functions in the DOA is also a mistake.  The Agriculture Department’s history has never included environmental stewardship and it has never taken an interest in undertaking that function.  DOA’s constituency is heavily one-sided toward agriculture.  It lacks both the expertise and the independence to deal with conservation issues.  The same argument  would be true were it proposed to transfer those functions to, say, the Department of Ecology, whose constituency is almost entirely environmental.  The Conservation Commission is made up of both farmers and environmentalists and includes an array of the many state agencies affected by private land stewardship issues – including DOA and DOE. We need that balance of agencies, interests, and constituencies if we are to have credible and effective environmental incentive programs in Washington.

The Conservation Commission and the districts also have a wholly non-regulatory history (unlike either the DOA or the DOE).  This history has earned the trust and respect of our State’s private landowners and has enlisted their growing willingness to participate in stewardship programs.  Placing these functions in DOA, or any other State agency, would severely erode this trust and be a major setback for conservation in Washington.

Fully one-third of the total 45 million acre land mass of the State of Washington is in Agriculture – that’s half of all our private lands.  And our farms consume much of our water.  So it is no surprise that agriculture would have significant impacts on the environment.  All of us do.

The only real question is how we choose to address those impacts.  Our most significant choice is between incentives and regulations.  And the obvious answer is a balance of both.  There are some things one just can’t get done with incentives.  And some for which incentives are the only approach that works.  Neither incentives nor regulations, alone, will ever address the complex problems we face.  But using both of these tools, together, we can shape our response so the burdens of addressing difficult environmental challenges fall where they belong and cost only what they should.   If the only tool we have available is regulation, the only fix will very often be one that mows down whoever happens to get in the way – regardless of their responsibility (or lack of it) for the problem.  If the only tool were incentives, those burdens might often fall unfairly on taxpayers when the private citizens who caused them really ought to be the ones who bear them.  We obviously need both.

That is why a proposal to cripple the State’s excellent voluntary incentives system is so vexing.  And it is why it is also terribly short-sighted, from an environmental perspective.  If the only solutions to environmental problems are ones that are unfair, heavy-handed, or that impose undue social and economic compliance costs, getting those solutions enacted, funded, and supported by the public will be hugely difficult.  That’s why we need both incentives and regulations.  So we can minimize the cost and impact of environmental solutions, both on taxpayers and on the public.

If we don’t have both, we’re very likely to end up with neither.

Washington citizens who care about the environment as well as those who support agriculture should oppose the proposed elimination of the Conservation Commission and fight dramatic cuts to conservation district funding.