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Brian Heitstuman and Craig Heitstuman holding his son, Merritt (1), who was going for his first
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Taking the reins

A familiar face voted in as executive director at the state conservation commission

November 2019

Earlier this year, members of the Washington State Conservation Commission (SCC) welcomed back a former employee as the new executive director.

Carol Smith had spent 15 years at the SCC—from 1998 to 2014—managing the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and other science-related issues. She left the SCC to take a position at the Washington State Department of Ecology heading up their environmental assessment program. She has also worked for the state’s department of fish and wildlife, the Morehouse School of Medicine and a chemistry lab in California.

Smith grew up in on the west side of the state and holds various biological science degrees.

The SCC is the coordinating agency for Washington state’s 45 conservation districts, which provide voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs to landowners. The SCC also helps the conservation districts work with other partners and is responsible for distributing state funds to the conservation districts. Smith replaced Mark Clark who retired as executive director in January.

In an effort to get to know Smith a little better, Wheat Life emailed a list of questions to her. Here are her answers.

You had previously worked for the SCC. What brought you back?

There are two main reasons. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing the tangible results of a best management practice—to see a ribbon of forest along a river that wasn’t there 20 years ago or seeing conservation tillage in the Palouse, knowing the value of the soils that are saved for future agriculture. Even being a small part of the great effort it takes to put that work on the ground is a legacy worth striving for.

The second reason is the sense of family that exists in the conservation district work. People involved in conservation district work truly know and understand the value of relationships and trust. Their very success depends upon trusting relationships with landowners to put voluntary practices into place. Those high values placed upon relationships and trust spill over into our day-to-day work and life and create a sense of family that just doesn’t exist in many other work environments.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the SCC and the state’s conservation districts?

The environmental problems that we are facing now are increasingly complex, especially with an increased human population that continues to place pressure on our resources and agricultural land. For example, water supply is one of the toughest challenges now and into the future. There is increasing demand on water supplies that are changing in timing and quantity, such as the declining groundwater levels in the Columbia Basin and the Palouse. Water quality problems increase with human population growth and land development and remains a huge challenge. Legal action adds to the complexity of our work as happened recently with the Hirst Decision. Adequate funding continues to limit our ability to engage as much as we should and to work with landowners on solutions to these problems.

Because of the complexity, no single entity or agency can solve these problems alone. We all have expertise to bring to the table to develop workable solutions, and we all need to be active partners in developing solutions.

What are some of your short-term goals for the SCC?

The items that we are prioritizing at this time are to:

• Improve our relationship with sister agencies and others so that we are recognized as an engaged, collaborative partner in solving environmental problems.
• Work for increased funding for conservation district work with a priority on technical assistance.
• Lay the groundwork for a state-funded riparian restoration program that leverages the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), fills the gaps that CREP doesn’t address and provides increased flexibility for landowners.
• Support funding and work on soil health.
• Continue to support existing programs that are important to conservation districts: Regional Conservation Partnership Program, CREP, Shellfish, Natural Resource Investments, Farmland Preservation, Voluntary Stewardship Program, Livestock Technical Assistance and irrigation efficiencies.

What are some of your long-term goals for the SCC?

Long-term goals are to:

• Fully implement a state-funded riparian restoration program targeting high priority streams that supplements CREP as well as funds those who aren’t a good fit for CREP. This would be a voluntary, incentive program that is flexible and suitable for smaller parcels, as well as provide additional incentives to increase participation in CREP.
• Demonstrate actual improvement in water quality or salmon habitat in the targeted riparian approach through monitoring with partners.
• Have a funded soil health program across the state that provides conservation districts with additional technical assistance to work with landowners on participation in soil health best management practices.
• Continue to work to right-size the funding for existing programs.
• Have all conservation districts in the State of Washington adequately funded.
• Increase training and certification of district planners for our key programs. This demonstrates our commitment to high quality expertise.
• Ultimately, we, the conservation district family, want to be recognized more broadly as the go-to source of expertise in working with landowners to develop solutions to environmental issues.

Soil health is in the spotlight right now, but in the last legislative session, the Soil Health Initiative failed to get full funding. What are your thoughts on that, and where does that project go from here?

The Washington Department of Agriculture is working with partners, including us, to put forth a soils health decision package and potential legislation again in the next session. We will be partners to actively support this work.

There seemed to be two hurdles last year. One was a lack of agreement with stakeholders. We are working on that hurdle right now. We are developing the required gap analysis requested of us when the legislation failed. In that process, we are working closely with stakeholders and our partner, the Washington Department of Agriculture, to not only complete the gap analysis, but more importantly, have those necessary conversations to help us all come to a more common understanding of this issue.

The second issue is how to communicate about soil health. Those unfamiliar with agriculture are often not aware of the benefits of soil health. We are also trying to be mindful to match the communication to the audience to make the topic more relatable. For example, knowing that the Governor’s Office has a high priority on climate change, we can communicate with them about how certain best management practices, such as composting, cover crops and forested buffers, can sequester carbon in a very significant way. Another great message about the value of soil health comes from the case studies that show that healthy soils can improve farm yields. This message would be useful when talking about funding for soil health with legislators who focus on economic and agricultural viability.

You deal with many legislators who represent urban areas and maybe don’t understand how agriculture works and the need to fund voluntary conservation projects. How do you communicate the idea that a viable agricultural industry can contribute to a healthy environment rather than damaging it?

There are many examples of how agriculture relates to the urban environment. The obvious one is that we all depend upon agriculture for food for our very survival. But also, our healthiest foods are often those locally grown, and it is important to connect healthy local food to people, including those in urban areas. The Food Policy Forum is working on that very issue, and the Washington Department of Agriculture is our partner in that effort.

With respect to a healthy environment, agriculture that employs best management practices can, depending on the practices, result in clean water, fish and wildlife habitat. Some of these practices also sequester carbon, a pollutant caused by a variety of human actions such as increased carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And most of this pollution isn’t caused by agriculture. This means that agricultural best management practices can have a public benefit to reduce pollution, some of which comes from those in the urban, industrial and residential environments.

However, to accomplish those environmental goals, we need adequate funding and strong voluntary, incentive programs to encourage significant participation. Agricultural lands are well suited to help support environmental goals because we strive for healthy soils that can also grow pollinator plants, riparian forests and other practices that support the public at-large. Once land is heavily developed with roads, buildings and other urban, residential and industrial infrastructure, it is very costly and difficult for land to provide those environmental benefits. And to achieve those benefits, we must have viable agriculture and forestry.

Along those same lines, how do you communicate with legislators and the public that voluntary conservation can often work as well or better than mandatory regulations?

Voluntary conservation means working with, not against, a landowner. No one knows their land better than the landowner, and that knowledge is crucial to designing practices that work well with that parcel of land and their specific farming activity. We need that local knowledge.

Also, when a landowner voluntarily puts practices on the ground, they have buy-in. They are much more likely to maintain the practice and ensure its success. They’ve helped choose and design the practices and want them to work.

For example, when I used to manage the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which restores trees and shrubs along streams as a voluntary incentive program, I would do site visits along with conservation district staff who developed the projects. Often, landowners would take time off from their normal day to walk the buffers with us and would point out things, such as the increased wildlife and birds they now saw due to the buffer, or the cooling effect the trees had in hot summer days. At the end of the visit, they always wanted to know “How is my buffer doing?” Of course, it was doing great. Landowners who care like that are tending to the buffer as though it is part of their farming operation. The public benefits from the improved fish and wildlife habitat and carbon sequestration, and much of that public benefit is because of caring landowners who go the extra mile to meticulously care for that buffer that we helped install.

It comes down to having a voluntary incentive system that results in engaged private landowners who actively try to improve an environmental condition. That’s powerful! Those landowners serve as examples for others, increasing participation and results. Solving problems at the local level with active participation from landowners is a much better approach to dealing with issues on private lands.

The public benefits at a lesser cost with a voluntary incentive approach because often, landowners cost share (pay) for part of the practices they install. They have skin in the game too. And the public gets that local knowledge and greater care and maintenance of the practice as a bonus.