Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Wetlands and Farms: One Example at Panghorn Bog

The Washington State Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of Whatcom County regarding the clearing of a wetland on a farm in the northern part of the county. The farm had been a dairy farm and had been acquired by a berry farm. A portion of the farm consisted of a forested wetland and the new berry farm cleared a 10 acre chunk of the forest for a new blue berry field. The clearing was done without a permit - a violation of the County Critical Areas Ordinance. The county required the wetland impacts be repaired. The farm abandoned the field, but apparently paused at the restoration that was required. The farm appealed first to the County Hearing Examiner, then then the Council, then to the Superior Court and finally to the State Court of Appeals all of which upheld the County wetland enforcement.

2005 satellite image

2009 satellite image

2011 satellite image

County's are required to protect wetlands under the State Growth Management Act. The wetland rules are also governed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Indeed this particular wetland is under Army Corps rules as well as the County.

This farmer had wanted to utilize more acreage and the wetland regulations preclude that use. A local farm leader was quoted by Bellingham Herald reporter Jared Paben "We tend to allow the critical area, the environmental concern, to trump the resource concern, and I don't think it should be that simple."  To some degree this conflict between two resource concerns is addressed in wetland rules. Buffers around wetlands are very greatly reduced for agriculture relative to other land uses. And it should be noted that in particular regard to water quantity wetland protection can be very important for agriculture. In this case the clearing and grading of a wetland area poses a drainage issue for other farmers. Water flow and drainage downstream from this wetland area could be potentially impact other farm fields. Hence, protection of the environment is in fact an important component of maintaining the hydrology of the streams and ditches in the area and farm fields as well. Higher stream flows due to drainage of wetland areas make it more difficult to maintain field drainage for farmers down steam.

An interesting note on this particular area is that the acreage in question was still forested in the first place. This area has been farmed for over 100 years. However, previous farmers had not drained or attempted to farm this acreage because it was too wet for traditional farming that had been done in the area. However, with the development of new blue berry varieties and new ways of processing blue berries as well as a high demand fields with organic rich muck soils such as this are attractive for blue berry farmers. Hence, land that had low value for many years is suddenly much higher value.

The extent of the organic rich muck soils can be seen in the satellite images and the soils map of the area delineates these organic rich muck soils as well.

Soil map with muck soil area highlighted in red

The area is located on a broad glacial outwash plain in northern Whatcom County. Most of the area is underlain by sand and gravel deposited by melt water streams when the glacial margin was located a short distance to the the north and east. Old channels and buried blocks of ice in the outwash left deep depressions that turned into peat bogs. The bog above is Panghorn Bog and was at one time mined for peat in the early 1900s.

Another resource conflict can be seen in the southeast portion of the satellite images. The outwash sand and gravel is excellent aggregate - pitting mining interests against agriculture.  

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