MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — It's one of the Northwest's favorite springtime images: Skagit County's row upon row of brightly colored tulips and daffodils, framed in evergreen trees and accented by Mount Baker.
Bob Rose, aptly named in this flower-growing county, wants to make sure it's an image that endures. Skagit County has fewer than 100,000 acres of farmland today, down from 150,000 acres a half-century ago.
"The problem is that we're on the I-5 corridor. We're halfway between Seattle and Vancouver [British Columbia] . . . in the middle of an economically booming area," says Rose, director of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, a local conservation group.
The threat to green space in the Northwest from housing developments, shopping centers and factories and warehouses extends well beyond Skagit County.
Farmland around metropolitan areas has been disappearing for decades.
"Farmland is just a metaphor for open space, and we're getting desperately short of open space in many metropolitan areas," says Paul Barkley, an agricultural economist at Washington State University in Pullman. "In the Pacific Northwest, where open space has considerable value, the concern is going to be quite great."
In a report earlier this year, the American Farmland Trust, a national conservation group, listed three Northwest locales--the Puget Sound and Willamette Valley region, the Columbia Basin and Idaho's central Snake River plain--among the 20 U.S. agricultural resource areas most threatened by urban sprawl.
The 1992 Agricultural Census showed that Washington had 15.7 million acres of farmland, a loss of 743,671 acres from 1982. Oregon had 17.6 million acres, down 130,285 acres in 10 years. Idaho had 13.5 million acres, a loss of 452,647 acres since 1982.
Nationally, 4.3 million acres were lost from 1982-92, nearly 50 acres every hour of every day, the American Farmland Trust said.
Cattleman Donald Munks, the fourth generation to run the family farm in Skagit County, sees the open space vanishing.
"This entire area is becoming more inundated with people. As people move into an area, more land is being taken up to supply housing needs," Munk says.
"And it's not just crop ground-- it is all farmland, which includes hillsides, partly forested land, pasture land."
With the rallying cry "Pavement is Forever," Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland has worked to hold onto what Rose calls the only fully functioning farm economy left in western Washington.
"Our mission is to protect agricultural land for agricultural production," he said.
Last year, Skagit County commissioners approved a small property tax for land conservation-- $6.25 a year on a $100,000 home. The money will be used to buy development rights, or "conservation easements," from landowners--the difference between the appraised value of the property for development and its value for agricultural production, usually considerably less.
Additionally, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland has accumulated 250 acres in donated easements, Rose said. The easements become part of the title to the property, requiring protection of the agricultural land in perpetuity--even when sold, leased or bequeathed.
For nearly three decades, state and local governments have been trying to stall urban sprawl with land-use planning, zoning and public purchases.
In 1970, Washington's Legislature enacted the Open Space Taxation Act with this noble purpose: "It is in the best interest of the state to maintain, preserve, conserve and otherwise continue in existence adequate open-space lands for the production of food, fiber and forest crops and to assure the use and enjoyment of natural resources and scenic beauty for the economic and social well-being of the state and its citizens."
The law created a statewide program offering reduced property tax assessments to landowners who keep their open space undeveloped to protect natural resources, their timberland in trees and their farms in agricultural uses, said Peri Maxey, a property tax specialist with the state Department of Revenue.
In 1997, 11,574,810 acres of the state's agricultural, timber and open space lands were enrolled in the program, receiving a 67% tax reduction.
In King County, since 1992, preservation-minded landowners have won tax breaks of 50% to 90% under the Public Benefit Rating System, coordinator Tim Sullivan said.
Protecting open space "adds some character to an area," he said. So far, about 3,500 acres have been enrolled in the program.
Ann and Chuck Kronenwetter of Maple Valley decided to enter three of their four acres in the program in 1995. This year, they saved $658 in taxes.
"It's a great deal," Mrs. Kronenwetter told the South County Journal in Kent. "The county can't go out and buy such small parcels of land. If I am keeping this area for the wildlife, it's quality of life for me."