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Wenatchee World editorial: Conservation, and the best options

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By Tracy Warner
The Wenatchee World

What could be more fair, or mesh better with local values when property rights are dear? The conservation easement arrangement has been used to good and beneficial effect all across the state, and often in North Central Washington.

Conservation of open, undeveloped land can be in the public’s best interest. Not always, but often. Intact open spaces benefit wildlife and commerce now, and the welfare of generations yet unborn.

Government can conserve the land in several ways. The means favored in the 1990s was heavy-handed land-use regulation. That worked, but was problematical in that it robbed landowners of potential income and the full control of their property, without compensation. The second method is outright purchase, which is often beneficial but creates resentment when land is removed from the property tax rolls, a painful problem for counties on the east slopes of the Cascades already 70 to 80 percent publicly owned.

The most palatable, fair, and constructive means is the conservation easement. A willing landowner sells rights to development. The land is conserved, the landowner’s loss of potential development is compensated fairly, the land remains under the owner’s control, often as ranch or farm with no loss of production. The property remains on the tax rolls. Property rights are in no way infringed. The only thing that changes is what might be, and the landowner agrees to the compensation for that lost potential.

What could be more fair, or mesh better with local values when property rights are dear? The conservation easement arrangement has been used to good and beneficial effect all across the state, and often in North Central Washington. And yet the Okanogan County commissioners have told the Legislature they will oppose government-funded conservation easements now and always. There are easements already negotiated, agreed to willingly by landowners west of the beautiful Similkameen Valley already funded through the state Wildlife and Recreation program and Capital Budget that are now in jeopardy.

The commissioners explained to the state Recreation and Conservation Office that conservation easements keep “revenue flowing” into the coffers nongovernmental organizations and so seriously encumber property that it will never be sold to anyone but government. “In the end it is a fee simple purchase on the installment plan,” they said

The landowners beg to differ. They say the easement agreements are workable and flexible and provide needed capital. The commissioners in their anti-government zeal are infringing on the decisions of private property owners, made eyes wide open and in their best interest. The opposition to conservation easements is opposition to non-regulatory, voluntary conservation.

The commissioners do property owners no favors. They oppose the least onerous means of conservation, and threaten to eliminate that option in the county. In that they promote the heavy-handed techniques they say they detest, or the encourage the eventual loss of the open space that is the source of so much of Okanogan County’s appeal. This is a mistaken policy.

This is the opinion of The Wenatchee World and its Editorial Board: Publisher Rufus Woods, Editor Cal FitzSimmons and Editorial Page Editor Tracy Warner.

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