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Kendyl (4), Rocky (8) and Carlee (6) Howard enjoy harvest at the family farm near Dayton.
Photo by Julie Howard

COAXIUM

POLICY

Weed concerns

A year after leases terminated, Benton County DNR land is sitting idle

December 2017
By Trista Crossley

In the year since several Benton County farmers had their leases terminated early by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), little progress has been made in turning the land to a “higher and better use.”

According to Katie Mink, assistant region manager for DNR’s southeast region, the project was put out for auction in April of this year, but received no qualified bids. DNR has been reaching out to parties who had expressed interest in the project but didn’t submit a bid in an effort to understand those parties’ concerns. In most cases, Mink said, the cost of the project was the primary obstacle. DNR estimates that the cost for installing the pipeline and related on-farm infrastructure to be upwards of $17 million.

“We are in conversations with a few parties who have expressed interest in working with us to make this project happen in a manner that is beneficial to both them and the school trust,” Mink said.

At this time, DNR hasn’t set another auction date.

In 2016, DNR unexpectedly terminated several Benton County leases on very short notice citing the “higher and better use” clause included in their standard lease agreement. Under this clause, if the department can identify a use for the land that has the potential for a higher return, they can terminate a lease early. The original contracts required a 60-day notice; that was amended in the 2017 state legislative session to at least 180 days. In the case of the Benton County land, DNR terminated the leases in preparation for a planned irrigation project that is designed to perfect a water right expiring in 2019.

The lack of a bidder has also caused headaches for neighboring landowners. When the leases were terminated, nearly all farming activity stopped, and weeds quickly took over. Calls were made to the county’s noxious weed board and to Benton County Commissioner Shon Small who contacted DNR.

“The intent in April was to auction the property off and have it developed. When that didn’t happen, the weed issue arose,” Mink said. “We were working with a (DNR) lessee out there to figure out an agreement to have them mow for us when we got a call from Commissioner Small who let us know in no uncertain terms that people were unhappy. Later that day, we had reached an agreement (with the lessee), and they were able to get it mowed quickly. Going forward, if the land isn’t leased out again, we will have somebody lined up ahead of time to mow what needs to be mowed.”

Vic Reeve, coordinator of the Benton County Noxious Weed Control Board, said he did get calls from landowners who were concerned about the weeds growing on the DNR ground. He said that while there are weeds of concern growing there, it isn’t a “total wreck yet.” He is concerned, however, that the possibility exists for the weeds to get out of control.

“My concern now is what’s going to happen this coming year. It should have a weed control program developed for it if it’s not going to be farmed, and it’s going to cost the state to do that,” Reeve said. “In one year, the weeds can become much, much worse without someone doing the maintenance and overseeing it.”

The main concern is that the weeds will spread to nearby land, negatively impacting the productiveness of that land.

“In the dryland farming area, farmers don’t have a lot of extra money to throw at these type of things, so if weeds start becoming a problem on neighbors’ ground, then it becomes an economic issue,” Reeve explained.

Chad Smith, one of the farmers who lost their lease and still farms land adjacent to the DNR ground, agreed.

“If weeds start spreading from their ground to mine, it is going to cost me money because it is going to contaminate my fields,” he said. “We all try to keep our weeds mowed, down to a minimum. One person could contaminate a whole area depending on which way the wind blows.”

Smith also pointed out the irony of the situation. The leases were terminated early so DNR could get more income from them, but right now, the land is sitting idle and costing the state money to maintain.

“The land is just sitting and doing nothing. It’s growing weeds and costing the taxpayers money,” Smith said. “If they (DNR) had come to us and said ‘this is our idea,’ we could have worked with them easily.”

To read more about this issue, see the April 2017 issue of Wheat Life here.