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Yakima Farm Bureau president stands against solar land rush

YAKIMA, Wash. Yakima County Farm Bureau President Mark Herke has not said a word against windmills, but he has plenty to say about solar panels.

First, he says, don't call hundreds of acres of panels on steel posts screwed into the ground "solar farms."

"We dropped that term a long time ago," he said. "We call them solar-industrial complexes."

While cows and sheep can graze around windmills, solar projects as configured now blot out agricultural use and take up far more land, Herke says.

He has gathered other objections to solar projects and presented them to decision-makers on behalf of the Yakima Farm Bureau and Farm Bureau members in neighboring Klickitat County.

The Yakima Farm Bureau last year opposed a 625-acre solar project east of Yakima on agricultural land, even though the development had, judging from public comments, local support.

Herke asserts the public has yet to catch on to how thousands of acres of solar panels might change Eastern Washington. When he became the county Farm Bureau's president in 2019, it wasn't an issue. It's become a top issue in just the past year, he said.

"The solar is coming on faster than people realize," he said. "We're not quite a lonely voice, but we're close to that."

It's not just the solar panels that will take up land, Herke said. To make up for fencing off wildlife migration routes, developers may have to buy land elsewhere for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, taking more property out of private hands.

"I very much predict there will be more pushback," Herke said. "I guess we're on the leading edge."

Herke, 65, was interviewed at his home on a hill outside Yakima and the northern edge of the Yakama Indian Reservation.

It's the same rocky hill where his great-grandfather from Germany settled in 1871. The Herke family raises cattle, grows hay, harvests timber and mines rocks for construction.

Herke is worried about the "green rush." In Western Washington, the term means stampeding to recreational marijuana. To Herke, it means the race to build renewable energy. 

The Washington Legislature in 2019 set off the rush by voting to rid the state's electricity of greenhouse gases by 2045. Only one senator and two House members from Eastern Washington voted "yes." Complying with law, however, depends on land east of the Cascades.

"The people pushing it the most would give up the least on their livelihoods, their landscape," Herke said.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Democratic lawmakers this year moved to speed up the clean-energy revolution by expanding the jurisdiction of the Energy Facilities Site Evaluation Council to include energy-related industrial developments.

The council is made up mostly of unelected Inslee administration officials and is an alternative to winning approval from counties for energy projects.

Herke said he fears a more-powerful state council will further distance decision-makers from the consequences of the developments. "With counties, at least you can go and bang on a commissioner's desk," he said.

Asked if there's any good place to put solar panels, Herke suggests the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The Yakima Farm Bureau's position on solar projects butts heads with property rights. The 625-acre solar project it opposed was supported by the two landowners who will lease land to the solar developer.

S. Martinez Livestock Inc. told the state site council that it was leasing ground that gets very dry in the summer and has little value in the winter as pasture. The reliable lease payments will diversify income, but not affect its operations, according to the ranch.

The other landowner said the unirrigated farmland already was enrolled in a conservation reserve program, but the payments from the solar project will be more.

Herke said the county Farm Bureau wrestled with property rights, but came down on the side of preserving farmland for future generations. "If you want to protect farmland, you have to look beyond today and tomorrow," he said.




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