The Oregon Department of State Lands wants to fine a farmer $6,000 for alleged violation of state fill-removal laws.

The potential fine seems excessive, particularly to the actual harm — or, more accurately, the lack thereof. But rather a story about fines and punishment, the case serves as a cautionary tale for landowners with streams and wetlands — or anything that can be later so classified.

Kelly Sampson grows hay and nursery stock on 80 acres near Canby, on the banks of Mill Creek.

Sampson recently told the Capital Press, EO Media Group’s agricultural newspaper based in Salem, that he noticed a section of the stream bank was eroding, and he decided to plant willow trees to stabilize the soil. He put hay bales onto rocks next to the creek to retain moisture for the young trees.

Ordinarily, landowners don’t need a fill-removal permit from the Oregon Department of State Lands if they’re adding or removing less than 50 cubic yards of material in a waterway or wetland.

But in this case Milk Creek — a tributary of the Molalla River — is designated as “essential salmonid habitat,” so any amount of disturbance requires a permit, according to the agency.

Sampson was unaware of the designation, and says his reading of the rules on the state’s website made him believe he was in the clear.

A complaint received by the state indicates that Sampson placed hay bales as well as “horse manure and barn cleanout” below the creek’s ordinary high water mark.

Though Sampson’s intentions were good, he was in violation of the law.

To its credit, when the Department of State Lands finds an unintentional violation it works with the landowner to work things out. If you can restore things as you found them, the fine can be waived. Or, the fine can be reduced to the extent that the effort is successful.

The best policy for a landowner is to assume a permit is needed and seek professional advice.

“Give us call and we can advise them,” said Lori Warner-Dickason, field operations manager for the Department of State Lands. “If they proceed without confirmation from us, they do so at their own risk.”

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