Conservation Commission News

Washington’s Voluntary Stewardship Program passes major milestone in protecting critical areas and farmland

Washington’s Voluntary Stewardship Program passes major milestone in protecting critical areas and farmland

OLYMPIA, WA – All counties in Washington’s Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) are successfully using incentive-based and farm-friendly strategies to comply with state growth management requirements, according to a first-round of evaluations. Twenty-seven of Washington’s 39 counties are enrolled in the program, and a review of their progress concurred that all are on track to meet their VSP work plan goals and benchmarks to protect critical areas while maintaining agricultural viability.

Voluntary stewardship program participant
VSP in Thurston County, by Marguerite Abplanalp, Thurston Conservation District

This milestone is the culmination of a negotiated effort begun over 14 years ago to resolve disputes over protection of critical areas — which include wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat, frequently flooded areas, critical aquifer recharge areas, and geologically hazardous areas — and agricultural activities.

“This is really promising news for our state and our communities,” said Kirk Robinson, Interim Executive Director of the Washington State Conservation Commission (SCC), the state agency that administers the program. “We don’t have to choose between either protecting critical natural resources or maintaining viable working lands. These VSP progress reports show we can support both priorities by working together at the local level and engaging people as partners in the solution.”  

VSP work plans meet the state requirement that each county develop plans for managing population growth, protecting critical areas located on farmland, and promoting farm viability. Many counties work with their local conservation districts to implement their VSP work plans.

Prior to 2011, the main tool for counties to ensure compliance with growth management plans and requirements was regulation. Then the state created VSP, giving counties an option to create plans that rely on incentives to voluntarily engage farmers in stewardship activities that protect critical areas on agricultural land. Counties that enrolled in VSP must demonstrate how stewardship activities protect or even enhance critical areas through scheduled progress reports and evaluations of their state-approved work plans.

As of November 2021, progress reports on all VSP work plans have been evaluated by a state technical panel, advisory committee, and the SCC who concurred that each county is on track to meet their benchmarks. Community members, farmers, and landowners in VSP counties should continue to see an increase in outreach efforts informing them of the benefits of VSP and inviting them to participate in activities that will contribute to the future success of the program.

“It has been a challenging journey and I am pleased to see that the original vision of a voluntary, local process has proved successful,” said John Stuhlmiller, Chief Executive Officer of the Washington Farm Bureau.

Program background

In 2006, court decisions indicated agricultural lands could not be exempted from regulatory requirements for protection of critical areas. Some agricultural producers voiced concern that these regulatory burdens would force them out of agriculture. At the same time, other stakeholders were concerned that critical areas needed to be protected from potential agricultural impacts. This dispute led to a negotiated process at the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, which resulted in the Voluntary Stewardship Program. Learn more about VSP.

Twenty-seven counties in Washington follow the VSP approach

Map of 27 VSP counties

Questions and contacts

Want to learn more about VSP in your county?

Use our VSP directory to find local work plans, reports, and contacts.

General questions about VSP?

Contact Bill Eller, VSP Coordinator for the Washington State Conservation Commission (, 509-385-7512).