Commentary: Finding common ground that sustains our future

By Tristan Klesick, Terry Williams and Monte Marti

Since the retreat of the Vashon Glacier 13,000 years ago, the area that is now Snohomish County has been one of the best places on earth to live. A rich tribal salmon culture flourished here for millennia; settlers came for timber, fish and fertile farmland; cities grew up around natural ports on our protected inland sea.

But the “resource lands” of Snohomish County — the farms, forests, natural habitat, open space and parks — that make this such a productive and beautiful place to work and live are facing historic challenges. An additional 200,000 people are expected to move here within 30 years; a changing climate — bringing droughts, floods, reduced snowpack, and sea level rise — is affecting agriculture, fish, forests and communities; salmon runs are crashing; and the political and economic demands upon farmers, tribes, agencies and developers are unprecedented.

Despite this complex landscape, groups are coming together in the spirit of “collaborative conservation” to work toward win-win solutions.

The recent Farm-to-Table dinner hosted by the Sustainable Land Strategy, Agriculture Caucus, Snohomish Conservation District and the Snohomish County Farm Bureau brought together a remarkably diverse 75-person group that included tribal leaders, flood control and drainage districts, big and small farmers, conservation groups and high-level government officials, including County Executive Dave Somers, Puget Sound Partnership Director Sheida Sahandy and the Conservation Commission’s Mark Clark. On a pastoral 100 year-old farm on the banks of the Snohomish River, individuals shared their stories and their fears, listened to others’ perspectives, and experienced first-hand what exactly is at stake.

For over six years, the Snohomish County Sustainable Lands Strategy has been providing a multi-stakeholder forum for identifying “net-gains” for simultaneously preserving and enhancing agriculture and salmon habitat.

The SLS, and similar regional “multi-benefit” initiatives like the public-private Floodplains by Design partnership between The Nature Conservancy, the state Department of Ecology and the Puget Sound Partnership, are based on the premise that science, collaboration and coordinated investment can begin to bring together historically opposed groups, and address fish, farm and flood needs in a comprehensive way.

The benefits of this approach are beginning to emerge. The SLS brought together Lower Skykomish farmers, Tulalip Tribes and other stakeholders to utilize reach-scale assessments and geographic information system (GIS) maps to overlay potential habitat restoration areas, flood mitigation and drainage projects, and water quality sites. The Stillaguamish Tribe worked with the city of Stanwood, the Stillaguamish Flood Control District and farmers to create a package of seven multi-benefit projects that received full funding under the Legislature’s Floodplains by Design program.

The SLS and its partners are also developing innovative models around conservation easements and the purchasing of development rights, incentives for stewardship practices and climate resiliency planning.

In recognition of the efforts to advance this collaborative conservation model and the national significance of our resource land base, President Obama recently designated the Snohomish basin as one of four focus areas under the federal Resilient Lands and Waters Initiative. The timely potential for positive impacts within our communities and ecosystems has never been greater or more imperative. We are all coming to the table with different needs but a common agenda: the long-term stewardship of these lands and of our future.

Tristan Klesick of Klesick Family Farms and Terry Williams of the Tulalip Tribes are co-chairman of Sustainable Land Strategy. Monte Marti is manager of the Snohomish Conservation District.

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