While putting the final touches on a two-year, 10-part series about the Puget Sound ecosystem, I couldn’t help but wonder about the true character of Washington state and its citizens.
How much do people really care about salmon and rockfish, eagles and herons, killer whales, cougars, and many lesser-known species in and around Puget Sound? Do we have a political system capable of supporting the needed efforts — financially and legally — to correct the problems?
After interviewing hundreds of people over the past few years, I have a pretty good feeling about this state, especially when considering other parts of the country. There is hope that we can save some of the remaining gems of the Puget Sound ecosystem while restoring functioning conditions in other places.
Puget Sound Partnership, which is overseeing the restoration efforts, still has the support of many people and organizations — including many conservatives and business-oriented folks. That support comes despite ongoing struggles by the partnership to find a proper place within the state’s political system. Review my latest story in the Kitsap Sun (subscription).
“Let science lead the way” remains the refrain of both critics and supporters of the partnership. But that is easier said than done — even if you could take politics out of the equation.
Scientists in almost any field of research don’t always agree on the fundamental problems, and there is a competition among scientific disciplines for limited research dollars. Are endangered fish more important than endangered birds or endangered whales, or should we be studying the plankton, sediments and eelgrass that form the base of the food web?
Really, where should we focus our attention and tax dollars? That’s a key question. The correct answer is, and always has been, “All of the above.”
When it comes to funding, the decision-making becomes widely disbursed, and I’m not sure whether that is good or bad. At the local level, we have Lead Entities and Local Integrating Organizations. At the state level, we have the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board and agencies themselves.
Then there is the Puget Sound Partnership, with its seven-member Leadership Council and 28-member Ecosystem Coordination Board, along with its science advisory panel. The partnership establishes an Action Agenda to guide funding decisions by the others.
One would never want an individual man or woman deciding where the money should go. But do the various groups help identify important problems, or do they diffuse attention from what could be a focused strategy? I believe this will always be somewhat a philosophical question.
One thing I confirmed in the final installment of the 10-part series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” is that nobody was ever serious about a deadline established in the law creating the Puget Sound Partnership. Restoring Puget Sound by the year 2020 remains on the books as a goal that needs to be changed.
If officials acknowledge that the goal cannot be met, will the Legislature and the public continue their support for the current level of funding or perhaps increase support?
That gets back to my wondering about the true character of Washington state and its citizens. Based on past legislation, this state is clearly a leader in ecosystem protection. We have the Shoreline Management Act, the Growth Management Act (with its urban-concentration and critical-areas protections), Municipal Stormwater Permits, Forest Practices Act and more.
Are we ready to go all the way, by setting interim goals for 2020 and looking to the long term? We will need to better track progress, which means gathering more data in the field — monitoring, if you will.
Monitoring is not as inspiring as restoring an important estuary. But think of all the time and money spent on forecasting the weather, which relies entirely on monitoring with costly investments in satellites and equipment, all needing continual improvements.
Envision a significant role for experts who can describe changes in the ecosystem and help us decide if our money is being well spent. If weather reporters can hold a central role on the evening news, why shouldn’t we have ecosystem reporters discussing environmental conditions.
I wouldn’t mind hearing a report on the news something like this: “We are seeing improved conditions in southern Hood Canal, with scattered salmon spawning at upper elevations, and a 90 percent chance that oyster beds will be opened in Belfair.” (Just kidding, of course.)
Puget Sound Partnership’s proposed budget, as submitted by the governor, contains more than $1 million for assessing Puget Sound recovery. That could be an important step to providing information about how the ecosystem is responding to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on protection and restoration so far.
In writing about the future for the final part of the “Pulse” series, I described a 2008 report from the University of Washington’s Urban Ecology Research Lab. The report identified the primary “drivers” of change that would determine the future of the Puget Sound region.
It was interesting to learn that if we are lucky about climate change — or even if we’re not so lucky — the future is largely in our hands. How will we react to economic ups and downs? How will we address land use with millions of new people coming in? Will we embrace technology as the final solution or look to nature for answers?
The report describes six remarkably different scenarios, though others could be constructed. Perhaps the worst one is called “Collapse,” in which warning signs of ecological problems are ignored and economic challenges are met by relaxing environmental regulations and allowing residential sprawl. In the end, the ecosystem cannot withstand the assault. Shellfish beds are forced to close, and hundreds of species — including salmon and orcas — disappear.
Two scenarios hold more hopeful outcomes. One, called “Forward,” includes public investments to purchase sensitive areas, including shorelines. Growth becomes concentrated in cities, and people learn to fit into the ecosystem. The other, called “Adaptation,” includes grassroots efforts to save water and resources and improve people’s ecological behavior. Protecting shorelines, floodplains and wildlife corridors help reduce flooding and protect species that could have been wiped out. Check out “Scenarios offer glimpses of a possible future for Puget Sound,” Kitsap Sun (subscription).
Joel Baker, director of Puget Sound Institute, capped off my “futures” story with a sense of optimism, which I find contagious. I don’t know if Joel was thinking of the Frank Sinatra song, “New York, New York” which contains the line, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” But Joel told me something like, “If we can’t make it here, we can’t make it anywhere.”
Here are his exact words:
“As an environmental scientist, I find it interesting that things are starting to come together. We continue to grow economically, so we have the money.
“Energy is lining up with the environment, and we’re forcing the restoration program to think holistically. It’s as much about transportation as it is about sewage-treatment plants.
“The Pacific Northwest is technologically savvy; we have smart people here; and we have the collective will to get things done. So I’m optimistic about cleaning up Puget Sound. If we can’t do it here, God help the rest of the country.”