Coexist? In Puget Sound delta, a search for a plan to allow farming and wildlife

Compromises between farmers and environmentalists are most difficult in Puget Sound’s river deltas, the broad alluvial flood plains where fresh water in the rivers meets salt water in the Sound.

The deltas provide some of the best conditions in the world for farming, but they also provide salt marsh and wetland habitat critical for the health of salmon, shorebirds and other marine life.

Nowhere is the debate over land use more polarized than in the Skagit River delta, so heavily diked and drained for farming that it sometimes is referred to as America’s Holland. More than 70,000 acres of diked farms in the Skagit estuary produce upwards of $200 million each year in raspberries, blueberries, wheat and vegetables.

But scientists say habitat in the Skagit delta is so important it must be expanded if there is any hope of preserving the Puget Sound ecosystem.

The conundrum has led to a tense standoff among farmers, environmentalists and Indian tribes, with government regulators, politicians and conservancy groups in the middle, trying to find middle ground.

One idea being promoted by The Nature Conservancy: let farmers and nature share.

In an experimental program called “Farming for Wildlife,” the conservancy asks Skagit delta farmers to do what for many is nearly unthinkable – breach the dikes and flood fields with salt water to create temporary habitat. Then, on a regular rotation, drain and plant again.

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