Ridgefield farm banking on conservation
Published: June 6, 2017, 6:05 AM
As the landscape surrounding Ridgefield is converted from rolling farmland into one housing development after another, at least one family farm is going the opposite direction.
The Morgan family is “re-wilding” roughly half of their 1,625-acre Plas Newydd Farm by converting it into what will likely be the second-largest wetland and conservation bank in the state.
“Depending on who you talk to, this is one of the highest targeted restoration opportunities in the Columbia River,” said David Morgan, the farm’s managing partner.
Sandwiched between the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge and the Lewis River, Plas Newydd still retains many of its untamed characteristics, but, historically, it has been a working property, brought under an agricultural yoke through the decades by levee construction, land grading and wetland infill. Should everything go as planned, those man-made features won’t be there for long.
“We’re taking human-made constraints back off the land. We’re unbuilding,” said Kelley Jorgensen, Plas Newydd’s conservation manager. “Humans love homogeneity, nature loves heterogeneity. So we’re putting back messy things.”
Working with seven federal, state and local agencies that form an interagency review team, the farm is creating its long-term plan to create the Wapato Valley Mitigation and Conservation Bank though the Washington State Mitigation Banking Program.
Plas Newydd’s restoration plan is based off the family’s on-site knowledge and a trove of naturalist observations, historical documents and hand-drawn maps reaching back to the 1830s.
“I then filtered them from an ecological perspective and filled in a few gaps with technical things I knew where to find,” Jorgensen said. “I put the ‘ology’ filter on it and we put it in the technical documents.”
The farm is proposing to have four different types of mitigation credits for streaked-horned lark, wetlands, fish habitat and oak woodlands. Currently, it’s about 2 1/2 years into the certification process for its wetlands and conservation bank, and expects to be done with it early next year. The first phase of construction could begin next summer.
The 876-acre bank will restore dynamic floodplain habitat for native plants and animals as well as migratory birds and fish, but the benefits aren’t limited to the camas, salmon and sandhill cranes.
As with any farm, Plas Newydd capitalizes off what it can grow and sell, but that can be challenging when trying to balance commodity rotations with market fluctuations, property taxes and the pressure to sell the land or develop it.
By turning the land into a wetland and conservation bank, the farm can take some of those pressures off and get paid to restore the land to a more natural state by developers who need to offset their impacts.
“A conservation bank allows you to capitalize on your natural assets rather than selling them for development,” Jorgensen said.
When developers want to build new roads or buildings or subdivision they have to get permits that typically require some sort of mitigation to make up for the environmental damage they’re causing.
Curt Hart, spokesman for the Department of Ecology’s Shorelands and Environmental Assistance program, said developers used to try to restore wetland habitat on-site — which is why you sometimes see a large grassy pond in the middle of a neighborhood — but that approach usually isn’t as successful as preserving or restoring large areas.
“Concentration is where you’re getting more bang for your buck,” he said. “If you’re a developer and you’re going to have unavoidable impacts to three to five acres of wetlands — if you can buy credits that are in a large area that has important aquatic species like fish or waterfowl you can really harness that instead of having a patchwork here or patchwork there.”
Morgan, who is the third-generation manager of the farm, said profitability has always been key to running the farm, but sustainability and conservation have always been an important aspect of his family’s land-management practices.
It’s reflected in his father’s decision years ago, when he opted to keep oak on the property rather than cutting it down and replacing it with more profitable Douglas fir, to his own choice to create the mitigation bank.
“I could have 20-acre lots with Lewis River frontage and crazy property lines and I could do that in six months. That’d be easy,” Morgan said. “But I can’t do it the easy way, man. I have to do it the hard way. This is the ecologically sustainable way. It’s the right thing to do with the property.”