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State Commission recommends possible removal of TCD Board members

Seen as trying to starve the District and its programs

Esther Kronenberg

The Thurston Conservation District (TCD, District) has been the locus of an ideological fight in Thurston County that lumbers on. Last year, the District lost a third of its funding when three board members (including the Chair) failed to vote at a critical meeting. Chairman Johnson was quoted in the Olympian saying the revenue loss could be viewed as “taxpayers saving nearly $600,000 that would have gone to overcompensated bureaucrats sucking the public teat.”

A pattern of conduct by the Chair and another Board member eventually provoked complaints of disruptive behavior serious enough to merit investigation by the state. The loss of funding has led to the departure of staff, as well as the sacrifice of important functions of the District. At this time, only 7 of 15 employees remain, and many programs have been eliminated. “Staff is drowning in workload,” says Executive Director Sarah Moorehead.

The Washington State Conservation Commission (SCC) that oversees the TCD recently completed its investigation of the District and recommended possible removal of two board members—Eric Johnson and Richard Mankamyer.

The investigation found that the two board members engaged in acts that constitute neglect of duty and malfeasance. A hearing to consider the report and the two board members’ response will be scheduled at a special meeting of the SCC on August 29. That meeting is open to the public.

Functions of the Thurston Conservation District are being compromised

TCD has had to curtail agriculture workshops and classes. Its farm equipment rental program and soil testing for the public are in jeopardy. Recently, the two Board members who were subjects of the investigation refused to vote on a contract that would have continued the TCD in its role as fiscal agent for $820,000 to help with salmon recovery. Their inaction could lead to the County losing those irreplaceable funds.

In November, 2017, Thurston County’s Environmental Health Director wrote “reducing or eliminating TCD services in 2018 will have a significant impact on Thurston County residents and jeopardize many successful programs.” Programs affected include the Shellfish Protection District, the Deschutes Non-point Source Pollution Project, and the Voluntary Stewardship Program. These programs work because they enlist the voluntary support of the landowner to fix problems on their land.

An Environmental Health staffer also addressed the consequences of losing the District:

“…the even bigger impact to our program is the lack of someone to send farm operators and land owners high quality technical assistance…The Conservation District works with many property owners to develop stream-side restoration plans, and can help cost-share the cost of the plants, site preparation, and plant installation. They can manage a class or two of students on a restoration site and get plants properly in the ground,,, Currently when health department water quality staff identify a property that is polluting water, our first approach is to talk with the property owner or farm operator and refer them to the Conservation District for assistance. Most property owners take advantage of the services, and most of our problems can be remedied this way. … If the Conservation District closes, that will leave a huge gap in assistance for residents and I worry about the impact to our water.”

A pattern of conduct by the Chair and another Board member eventually provoked complaints of disruptive behavior serious enough to merit investigation by the state.
Staff continues to operate other key programs

Educating. Clear Choices for Clean Water educates landowners in the Henderson and Nisqually Shellfish Protection Areas to help restore and protect water quality and shellfish tidelands.

South Sound GREEN educates students in watershed studies. Over the years, thousands of kids have gone on field trips with marine biologists.

♦ The Envirothon is a hands-on, outdoor environmental science competition for high school students from surrounding counties where students demonstrate knowledge of soils, forestry, aquatics,and wildlife among other topics..

Restoring habitat.  The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Project (CREP) is a partnership between the State and Federal governments that plants native trees and shrubs along streams to restore and protect critical habitat and protect water quality. CREP works with landowners to develop a site specific buffer, pays the full installation costs of plantings, fencing, and a watering facility if necessary, and pays the first 5 years of maintenance. Landowners receive a yearly rental payment for the length of the contract, either 10 or 15 years. At Riverbend Ranch on the Skookumchuk river, CREP recently installed 7000’ of fencing and planted a riparian buffer to restore 0.3 miles of the stream.

TCD runs the Voluntary Stewardship program (VSP) to protect critical areas on agricultural land. Often referred by the County’s Environmental Health Department, farmers work closely with TCD’s resource technician to develop voluntary, site-specific conservation plans.

♦ TCD provides free technical assistance for residents of Thurston County to assist landowners with all types of questions on land management such as crop and livestock advice or riparian habitat enhancement.

Leveraging resources

TCD has been the lead entity for the South Puget Salmon Enhancement group, helping restore salmon habitat at Mission Creek near Priest Point Park by ripping out a road and concrete to restore the area to a natural estuary.

TCD partnered with the Capitol Land Trust to acquire and enhance Harmony Farms in Henderson Inlet.

TCD supported a landowner for a fish passage project on the East Fork of McLane Creek. When complete, a bridge will replace a culvert that now acts as a fish barrier.

A new era of public awareness

TCD is a form of local government that originated in the Dustbowl of the 1930s. Erosion and dust storms created a national disaster that was solved only with the cooperation of local citizens. Today conservation districts help people preserve the health of farms, forests, urban yards, rivers, lakes, and coastlines. TCD has operated with volunteer leadership since 1947, winning awards and recognition for its work.

Over the past two years, under the leadership of Chair Eric Johnson and Richard Mankamyer, the TCD descended into a period of turmoil that has prompted renewed attention from the public. In the most recent Board election, Paul Pickett, who ran on a promise to stop the dismantling and restore the District’s viability, swamped his opponent, a high school friend of Johnson.

“We are beginning a new era where the Conservation District is adopted by Thurston County residents who care about the environment, sustainable agriculture and social justice. We are just beginning that effort —first stop the bleeding, then begin the rebuilding,” says Paul Pickett. Thurston Conservation District’s future health depends on the County Board of Commissioners’ voting to approve the District’s request for funding through 2019 via a “Rates and Charges” assessment.

Esther Kronenberg is a member of the observer corps for Thurston League of Women Voters.

Supporters can help by writing letters and emails urging Commissioners to approve TCD’s Rates and Charges this fall. https://www.thurstoncountywa.gov/bocc/ The WSCC report including the response by Johnson and Mankamyer can be found at http://scc.wa.gov/tcd-072018/

 

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