Puget Sound targets will stretch restoration efforts

Last week, the Puget Sound Partnership completed work on its ecosystem targets, the first time in history that goals have been established for the restoration of Puget Sound. See the story I wrote for Saturday’s Kitsap Sun.

Early in her first term, Gov. Chris Gregoire established a goal of restoring Puget Sound to health by the year 2020. What we have learned since then is that nobody can define precisely what that means. There is no battery of tests to be given to the waterway that would allow a team of doctors to declare their patient in fine condition.

In human terms, one can say a healthy person is one free of serious disease. But for some people that is not enough. Some are satisfied with nothing less than top athletic form. It’s even more complicated for Puget Sound, where some parts of the water body can be pristine while others are in need of intensive care.

It has become clear over the past few years that people have different aspirations when it comes to Puget Sound. Some would like to put as much money as possible into restoration for as long as we possibly can. Even so, it would be impossible to come close to the natural conditions that existed here before the first loggers and fishermen arrived.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe restoration is a waste of time and money, that the best we can do is minimize problems as the population expands. Some even contend that property owners will do the right thing without government money, rules or goals. But that has not worked so well in the past.

As for the targets selected last week, the Puget Sound Leadership Council mostly deferred decisions about ultimate goals for the health of Puget Sound, choosing instead to set targets for the year 2020. The idea is to reverse the decline of the ecosystem wherever possible and establish a sharp trajectory for improvement.

It was evident from the debate among advisers to the Leadership Council — including scientists and the Ecosystem Coordination Board — that the targets are basically a value judgment. Whether they are achievable depends on financial and political commitments that nobody can predict at this point. Whether the targets will be enough to produce real improvements is yet to be seen.

As I sat through two days of intense discussions, it became clear that members of the Leadership Council were stretching beyond the boundaries of what could be easily achievable. The council chose to reach for goals that would take increased political and financial commitments.

The discussion about salmon was rather revealing. Don Davidson, chairman of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council, said his group suggests a target for 2020 that would stop the decline of chinook and begin increasing abundance for at least two stocks in the bioregion. Setting the goal much higher, he said, carries the risk that people will be discouraged if the goal is not met. Such discouragement could lead to a collapse of public support for the entire salmon-recovery effort.

Some members of the Leadership Council challenged that notion, asking whether failure to meet the targets might just cause people to double their commitment to save Puget Sound. Davidson was not convinced, and I suppose it would take a psychologist or social scientist to predict how the public might respond to such failure. The Leadership Council took Davidson’s advice for salmon, in part to keep the partnership aligned with the salmon-recovery effort, which has its own political structure.

I think it’s safe to say that the chosen targets will require more than the status quo — in some cases stretching the limits of financial and political reality. But it is equally clear that restoration efforts must be extensive, simply to counteract the problems caused by ongoing population growth.

Billy Frank, chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and a member of the Leadership Council, said, in his own straight-talking way, that the council must watch out for the “status quo.”

“What I keep hearing about is the status quo,” Frank said. “If we don’t move away from that, we are doomed.”

Issues related to land use, including targets for forest cover and protection of sensitive environments, were pushed off until October, even though these issues are considered among the highest priority.

Col. Anthony Wright, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Seattle District, said members of the Leadership Council were cowards for not tackling the tough issue of land use. His words were so blunt that I’m not sure whether he was trying to inject some humor into the discussion.

Still, the bottom line is that everyone involved has come to realize that the Puget Sound Partnership needs to consult far more with local governments throughout the region. After all, this is where most land-use regulations are written. This is why the original concept of the Puget Sound Partnership included the idea of local governments becoming official “partners” in the effort, making commitments for actions they will take at the local level.

One other concern about targets: They are meant to measure progress toward ecosystem restoration on the whole by measuring chosen indicators. The indicators are generally selected species, streams or landforms. In some cases, they were chosen for their niche within the ecosystem. In other cases, they were chosen because of the availability of monitoring data. But all were chosen to represent the larger picture of ecosystem health.

One risk is that money and efforts will be directed toward improving the indicators while neglecting everything else that needs attention. Of course, that would defeat the purpose of indicators. They were chosen not because they are the most important things in the ecosystem but because they are a representative sample of what’s important.

Puget Sound Partnership Indicators

One thought on “Puget Sound targets will stretch restoration efforts

  1. Wow – thanks for attending those 2 days and giving a report. Now let’s hope the updated Action Agenda gives some specifics that local governments can (and will) salute and go forward to attack. My sense is that they will, especially if it is clear what they are trying to achieve. Maybe not everything, but enough to satisfy the public.

    That is a problem here in Skagit Cty. Many good things for Puget Sound are being accomplished, but many of those can’t be tied back to a specific goal or action item and so it is hard to promote them and show the benefit. Now it is a lot of opinion as to the value!

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