Protecting the Puget Sound ecosystem involves urban planning

I often write about Puget Sound restoration, sometimes forgetting to include the word “protection.” It really should be “Puget Sound protection and restoration” — with protection getting the first billing and the highest priority in our thinking.

Puget Sound from space // Image: NASA

Protection isn’t very exciting — not like restoring hundreds of acres of degraded estuaries, floodplains and wetlands. Of course, restoration is absolutely necessary to gain back lost habitat, but the immediate result is never as good as habitat that avoided damage in the first place. Even restored habitat generally needs to be protected for a long time before it functions as well as an undisturbed site.

These are issues I have been pondering as I wrote the latest story in a series about Implementation Strategies — a focused effort to make a measurable improvement in the Puget Sound ecosystem. For details, check out the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

If we could freeze everything in place, then habitat restoration would help rebuild the fish and wildlife populations that require special conditions. But we cannot stop time, and we are told that 1.5 million more people will soon be living in the Puget Sound region.

Where can all these future people find homes without further degrading the environment? Will they choose to live in places that minimize the ecological damage or will it even matter to them? Needless to say, this remains an open-ended question — a question that is both public and very personal, touching on issues of freedom and property rights.

I hope that we, as Puget Sound residents, can work together on this problem with open eyes and clear thinking. The state’s Growth Management Act has helped protect natural habitat by encouraging higher housing densities in urban areas. But the GMA has not been able to cope with economic and lifestyle pressures that cause people to live in remote areas where their mere presence disturbs the functioning food web.

It’s not an easy problem to solve, but researchers and policy experts familiar with the issue have put their thoughts together to formulate a draft “Land Development and Land Cover Implementation Strategy.” I outlined the draft in a story titled “Urban lifestyles help to protect the Puget Sound ecosystem,” published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. More work is planned before the strategy is finalized.

Ecologically important lands identified in the Puget Sound region. (Click to enlarge) // Map: WDFW

“I think the central battle will be in the urban areas,” Doug Peters told me, reflecting his understanding that higher-density communities are needed to protect intact habitat elsewhere. Doug, a watershed planner with the Washington State Department of Commerce, said development innovations and economic incentives could be needed to address the problem.

As I said at the outset, Puget Sound restoration seems to get the most attention. Meanwhile, the notion of protection may call to mind buying up ecologically sensitive lands or else purchasing conservation easements or development rights. But it is equally important to make plans for where we want people to live and to make sure these places are inviting enough to attract future residents.

In a region with wide-open spaces, this kind of planning does not have much appeal, and it is not the way we normally do things in this country. But, as Benjamin Franklin might say, “By failing to plan, you are planning to fail.”

2 thoughts on “Protecting the Puget Sound ecosystem involves urban planning

  1. Actually I think it requires limiting population density. As small town America disappears/has disappeared, we should plan “its”, restoration. We clearly see the environmental, social, and economic impacts, throughout the world and history from high density. High density equals more, and higher costs for everything, including the environment. Your thoughts?

  2. I thought at first you were talking about limiting population, not density. That might be good for the environment, but I’ve not heard of a reasonable way to do that. Some people want to limit immigration from other countries, but that raises many other issues.

    But you are talking about limiting population density in some areas. That runs counter to the idea of converting as little land as possible from habitat to development. It’s a dilemma, but there is some indication that the younger generation prefers compact living if they have access to nearby parks, recreation and transportation.

    There are no easy answers that I have heard, and maybe low-density developments have a place in areas of Puget Sound that are not considered ecologically sensitive. Redeveloping small towns could make a lot of sense if it doesn’t result in long-distant commuting.

    Maybe somebody with expertise on this issue will weigh in.

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