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Voluntary Stewardship Program

Current Status

On January 12, 2012, the Thurston Board of County Commissioners approved Resolution No. 14703 pursuant to RCW 36.70A.710.  With the adoption of Resolution No. 14703, Thurston County has elected to participate in the Voluntary Stewardship Program under chapter 36.70A RCW, has nominated all watersheds in the County for participation, and all watersheds have been named priority watersheds.  Work on the program is contingent on funding from the State of Washington.


In the spring of 2007, the state legislature adopted Substitute Senate Bill 5248 which included the following provisions:

  • Required the Ruckelshaus Center to look into the conflicts between critical areas regulations and agricultural uses. The Ruckelshaus Center was tasked to conduct a fact finding mission, bring together stakeholders on this issue for discussion of the issues, and develop a recommendation to the legislature.
  • Enacted a moratorium on new critical areas regulations on agricultural uses defined in the bill between May 1, 2007 and June 30, 2010. In 2010, the moratorium was extended until June 30, 2011 so the work could be completed.

In the spring of 2011, the state legislature enacted Engrossed Substitute House Bill (ESHB) 1886 which enacted the recommendations of the Ruckelshaus process. This bill amended the Growth Management Act (RCW 36.70A) to allow options for protecting critical areas:

  • Permits the County to use a voluntary stewardship program in conjunction with stakeholders in lieu of enacting further critical areas regulations in regards to agricultural uses. At the state level, the voluntary stewardship program is to be administered by the Washington Conservation Commission.
  • Continue under existing law and update critical areas regulations for agricultural uses by July 22, 2013.
  • Limit the voluntary stewardship program to certain watersheds in the county, and update the critical areas regulations for other watersheds.

Thurston County and the Voluntary Stewardship Program
Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Voluntary Stewardship Program?

The Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) is an alternative approach for counties to protect critical areas on agricultural lands. Counties are given two options: Optin to the voluntary stewardship program or continue under existing law under the Growth Management Act (GMA) to protect critical areas on agricultural lands. The VSP resulted from the Ruckelshaus process, a collaborative effort commissioned by the state Legislature to examine the relationship between agricultural uses and critical area regulation

What is the goal of the VSP?

The goal is to promote plans that protect and enhance critical areas where agricultural activities are conducted while maintaining and improving the long-term viability of agriculture. Another goal is to retain local control, or grass roots planning. This could include already existing programs that attempt to preserve both critical areas and agricultural areas such as the Open Space Tax Program, Transfer and Purchase of Development Rights, and Agritourism.

What is the history of the VSP?

In 2006, Initiative 933 addressed regulatory taking of agricultural lands due to development regulations. It failed by 60%. The following year, the state Legislature commissioned the Ruckelshaus Center, a non-profit think tank based in Seattle, to examine the conflict between preserving agricultural lands and protecting critical areas in local ordinances adopted under the GMA. The process brought together stakeholders on this issue for discussion and development of a recommendation to the Legislature. A moratorium was placed on the requirement for local governments to update their critical area ordinances as they specifically applied to agricultural activities. The Voluntary Stewardship Program is the result of the hard work undertaken by the Ruckelshaus Center.

The mitigation required seems to be a repeat of Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) requirements. Why not include more regulations in the CAO?

Instead of enacting further critical areas regulations on agricultural lands, the Voluntary Stewardship Program permits the county to work with stakeholders to develop voluntary, site-specific stewardship plans. In many cases, this may be preferable to blanket restrictions because critical areas restoration may be a part of a VSP plan, but are not required through a CAO.

Do all counties have to take part in the VSP?

No. While a county may opt out of the program, they must continue under existing law in the GMA to protect critical areas on agricultural lands. Thurston County has elected to participate in the Voluntary Stewardship Program under chapter 36.70A RCW, and has nominated all watersheds in the county for participation. This means individual landowners will receive resources such as technical support and assistance in the development of individual farm stewardship plans to protect and when necessary restore critical areas. In all, 28 of 36 counties in Washington state have opted to participate in the program.

If Thurston County opts to participate in the program, can it opt out in the future? What happens to critical area protections if the county later opts out of the program?

Thurston County has opted in to the program and may withdraw from the program at any time prior to accepting funding from the state. The county can withdraw at the end of three, five or eight years after receipt of funding, or any time after 10 years from receipt of funding. Within 18 months of withdrawal, the county must review and, if necessary, revise its development regulations to protect critical areas as they apply to agricultural activities in that watershed.

Distinguishing between agricultural impacts on watersheds and nonagricultural impacts will be difficult. What is the current definition of agriculture in the Critical Areas Ordinance?

"Agriculture" (As defined in Section 17.15.200 of the Thurston County Code) means use of a tract of land for the following:
1. The tilling of the soil;
2. The raising, harvesting and processing of crops or plant growth of any kind, including forestry;
3. Pasturage;
4. Horticulture;
5. Dairying;
6. Raising of poultry and livestock;
7. Shellfish or fish farming, including finfish in upland hatcheries; or
8. Raising, harvesting and processing of clams, oysters, and mussels.

What is the definition of agricultural use in the Growth Management Act (RCW 36.70A) adopted by the State of Washington?

RCW 36.70A.030
(2) "Agricultural land" means land primarily devoted to the commercial production of horticultural, viticultural, floricultural, dairy, apiary, vegetable, or animal products or of berries, grain, hay, straw, turf, seed, Christmas trees not subject to the excise tax imposed by *RCW 84.33.100 through 84.33.140, finfish in upland hatcheries, or livestock, and that has long-term commercial significance for agricultural production.

The VSP may have a lot more administrative costs than the CAO. Where is the funding going to come from and how much is available?

Participating counties are eligible for a share of the funding made available to implement the program.

Current funding estimates for program development and administration:
$150,000 per county in year one
$100,000 per county in years two & three
$120,000 per county in years four – six

After the initial funding is used up, it will either be up to each individual county to provide additional money, or the state.

What if the funding from the state never comes? Will the county be required to follow through with the program?

No, the county will not be required to implement the program until adequate funding is provided. However, if funding does not become available by July 1, 2015, the county must begin the process to review, and if necessary, revise its CAO for agricultural uses.

Thurston County opted in. Now what?

1. After the program is funded by the state, Thurston County may begin the planning process. This involves establishing a VSP planning group, submitting their plan, and having it reviewed and approved by the State Conservation Commission (SCC) director.
2. As part of the work plan, the watershed group must create measureable benchmarks that are designed for the protection and enhancement of critical area functions through voluntary, incentive-based measures.
3. If the watershed group does not meet their benchmarks after five years, the county must review and, if necessary, revise development regulations in the area consistent with the GMA.
4. If the watershed group meets the benchmarks 10 years after receipt of funding and every five years thereafter, they must report to the SCC director on whether it has met the protection and enhancement goals and benchmarks of the work plan.

How will the watershed group be formed?

A county will confer with tribes and stakeholders before establishing a VSP planning group. The watershed group must include a broad representation of key stakeholders and representatives of agricultural and environmental groups, and tribes that agree to participate.

What assistance will be offered to landowners?

Counties and local watershed groups will likely assist in the development of individual farm stewardship plans to protect and, when necessary, restore critical areas. Additionally, resources and incentives for landowners to implement farm stewardship plans to protect and restore critical areas will be offered.

Where Can I Find More Information?

More information can be found at:
If you would like to be added to our Web Mail list, go to the Thurston County Planning site at:

Staff contact: Jeremy Davis, Senior Planner.   Phone: (360) 754-3355, x7010   E-mail: davisj@co.thurston.wa.us.

Helpful Links:


Contact Us:

Interested Parties: If you would like to be added to our Web Mail list, please click here. Staff contact: Jeremy Davis, Senior Planner. Phone: (360) 754-3355, x7010 E-mail: davisj@co.thurston.wa.us.


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