The PSP Interviews: Martha Kongsgaard

When I wrote my recent progress report on the Puget Sound Partnership, my story included little more than brief quotes and snippits of information from a variety of informed people. It is somewhat rewarding to have a blog where I can bring you more complete impressions of the people I interviewed. Here is the first in a series of expanded reports from those interviews.

Martha Kongsgaard took over as chairwoman of the Puget Sound Partnership in July of last year, when Bill Ruckelshaus retired from the position. Martha previously was vice chairwoman. See news release, July 20.

Martha Kongsgaard

Although I had interviewed Ruckelshaus many times over the years, this was the first major interview I conducted with Kongsgaard, best known as the founder of the Kongsgaard-Goldman Foundation. The foundation supports various nonprofit environmental, social justice and arts organizations throughout the Northwest. She has served on boards and committees of Earthjustice, Islandwood, the Future of the Law Institute and Friends of the Methow.

Martha grew up in Napa, Calif., where her family raised cattle and operated vineyards. In 1988, she married Peter Goldman and collaborated with him to establish the foundation that carries their names.

In our interview, Kongsgaard said a lot of frustration has been expressed around the goal of cleaning up Puget Sound by 2020. While that may be a goal to “agitate around,” the effort to protect and restore Puget Sound will be ongoing, no matter how much is accomplished by 2020, she said.

Martha said the power of the partnership comes from the people who care about Puget Sound enough to do something. I quoted her this way in the story:

“We are not just here to put systems in place. I don’t want to be part of something that doesn’t have a point of view… We need to have the ecological infrastructure in place that will allow this ecosystem to recover to some level and be able to sustain itself when more than a million people come here in the next 10 to 15 years. It needs to be resilient enough to handle climate change.”

By summer, targets will be established by the Leadership Council to set ecosystem goals, such as those dealing with fish and wildlife populations, clean water and quality-of-life measurements. Again, from the story:

“Part of the partnership’s role is saying where we are going and how we are going to get there. We on the Leadership Council are in a place to state the truth and to say what management actions are needed.”

The goals must be realistic, Kongsgaard told me.

“How would you restore this place for salmon? To get to a robust pre-1850 condition, you would have to abandon Renton and Tukwila and where I live in West Seattle. What is doable? What is aspirational? How much of a precautionary approach do we take?”

I also used this quote in my story:

“Given a range of options, I think the Leadership Council will err on the side of being more protective rather than less protective. That’s our job.”

Martha went on to elaborate about the role of the Puget Sound Partnership, which is different from that of business organizations, which focus on the bottom line of their members.

“I’ve been to Olympia quite a bit in the last couple of weeks,” she said. “How do we get this work done in a catastrophic economic milieux? The administration could not have known how important the partnership would be in this down economy. We will be able to list the most important actions through our performance system.”

The outcome of the analysis will inform state residents about whether the money is being spent appropriately on Puget Sound, she said. If existing state and federal water-quality programs are not adequate to reach the goals, the partnership has a responsibility to say so.

“There is never going to be enough money,” she said. “Whether we have a down or up economy, we have to say, ‘This is how we are going to get it done.’”

That’s not to say that anyone has fully figured it out yet, she said, but people will not want their money spent on Puget Sound cleanup if the money is not spent well.

As for helping people understand the problems of Puget Sound, “I think you don’t necessarily get people involved by scaring them and dooming-and-glooming them. I think love is a big motivator, and I think that people around Puget Sound really love this place.

“What are the barriers for people to do the right thing? You don’t have to bludgeon people into doing the right thing. You have to remind them of the love of the place.”

I suggested to Martha that people need to understand the problem at some level before they will offer their support. From reading comments at the bottom of my stories, I have concluded that some people think they have the answers while lacking even a basic understanding of the problem.

“Understanding a problem without offering a solution is not a solution,” Martha said. “We have to get way better about explaining things without being self-righteous.”

She said it is important to have “vibrant” urban areas, yet it is unfair to put the burden of protecting ecosystem services entirely on rural-property owners who possess intact ecosystems.

She said the Puget Sound Partnership is the right organization to figure how to make it work. Nowhere else in the United States have are all the parties come together to solve the problem, she said. Tribes are integral to the process, she added, since they have been in Puget Sound for thousands of years and are not going anywhere.

It is important to make progress this year, Kongsgaard stressed, because the situation could change in two years if a governor comes into office with other priorities.

“These are just decisions to be made by people,” she said. “We can do it. I’m feeling pretty bullish about the partnership.”

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