Northwest Dairyman Blazes a New Trail for Farms to Protect Wildlife Habitat
AP Photo/John Froschauer
Driving down a highway in northwestern Washington, en route from a meeting in his role as director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, Jay Gordon can’t help but ponder whether some of the state’s highway beautification money would be better spent protecting the Skagit Valley farmland that provides feeding habitat to a quarter of the world’s Trumpeter Swans.
More than 17,000 Trumpeter Swans—their population dwindling in recent years—migrate from their summer breeding grounds in Alaska to warmer winter climates in southern British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. The largest waterfowl species native to North America, the swans prefer to roost in grassy fields and farmland near water.
“With some of the money spent on landscape projects by state highways, you could buy development rights on farmland,” says Gordon, who operates an organic dairy farm near Elma, Washington. “Instead of having another frog pond along the freeway, you could have protected farmland, protected water and protected Trumpeter habitat. That seems like a fair trade to me.”
Gordon is just one of many farmers around the country participating in the “green economy,” an emerging marketplace that extends the economic notion of “capital” to environmental (or “natural”) goods and services.
Working with American Farmland Trust, the Trumpeter Swan Society, Capitol Land Trust and the NationalParks Foundation, Gordon received funding for an easement protecting farmland that shelters swans displaced from an area further north along the Olympic Peninsula’s Elwah River. The easement agreement works out well. He continues grazing his cows on the land as he did before, which keeps the willow trees down and provides good habitat for the swans.
But Gordon has seen other opportunities for ecosystem protection squandered because the habitat value of farmland wasn’t always fully understood or appreciated.
“There’s a dairy up the valley from me that has endangered lupine on the farm,” he says of a rare species of the lavender-colored perennial flower that provides habitat for an endangered butterfly. “But if you stop grazing there, as some people initially wanted the farm to do, the fields grow up into invasive species.
Finally the biologists said, ‘We get it. Your cows don’t eat lupine so they’re keeping this habitat alive for the endangered butterflies to feed on.’”
It takes education, Gordon says, for people to realize that farmland is the preferred habitat for some species, such as an endangered spotted frog that thrives on Washington’s grazed wetlands.
“We need to keep the farmland. There’s a reason the frogs and birds are there,” Gordon says. “There’s a reason the farms are there. Every time we lose a chunk of farmland somewhere, or another piece of habitat provided by farmland, it adds to my feeling that, ‘Oh gosh, we’ve got to work harder to protect this land.’”
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