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Puget Sound triage

Cleaning up the Sound for real requires political will, not feel-good projects that play well in the media but have little ecological impact. It means focusing on rural, not urban, areas. But that's not where most taxpayers live. It will also take a monumental infusion of cash, which could come from a variety of sources, including a mitigation 'bank' for private polluters.

I asked David Dicks, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, if it would ever be time to use the "T" word regarding Puget Sound. I meant "T" as in "triage." That isn't a concept generally applied to save-the-Sound projects, but everyone who has given the matter serious thought realizes that: a) some problems aren't soluble; b) some feel-good projects don't really accomplish much; c) we'll never have enough money to do everything; so d) it makes sense to concentrate resources on the most significant projects with the greatest chances of success. Maybe triage isn't the right word, but it's the right concept.

Dicks said he wasn't sure it qualified as triage, but the first two of four "draft strategic priorities" the Partnership adopted in June acknowledge a need to make choices. The first — which hasn't been formally designated the top priority but probably qualifies as such — is to "ensure that activities and funding are focused on the most urgent and important problems facing the Sound." The second is to "protect the intact ecosystem processes that sustain the Sound."

Setting these two as top priorities implies a number of things. It leaves little room for, say, feel-good beach clean-up projects or the restoration of urban streams. Dicks acknowledges that such projects have an educational value for kids — and their elders — and help build political support, but they produce negligible environmental bang for large expenditures of bucks. He'd still do some such projects but not, say, an expensive daylighting of Thornton Creek through Northgate's south parking lot.

John Lombard, author of Saving Puget Sound, writes:

I live on a tributary to Thornton Creek in north Seattle. I am a past president and active supporter of Thornton Creek Alliance. I am not saying that we should 'write off' urban natural areas. But we should understand the limitations of investments in those areas and set reasonable goals for them. The current project to 'daylight' Thornton Creek ... will cost more than $10 million. I support this project, but primarily for its community development benefits. If the pot of money paying for it could be used to best serve Puget Sound as an ecosystem, I would shift that money immediately to the lower Skagit River, where it could make some real headway in the tragic conflict between farmers and environmentalists.

It also suggests that we'll have to raise money in the cities and spend it in the country, where it's still possible to preserve large blocks of habitat and more-or-less intact natural systems. Lombard argues (pdf), "We must accept a substantial transfer of wealth from urban areas to ecologically more important rural areas."

Elsewhere, Lombard has written:

Taken as a whole, urban taxpayers far outnumber rural taxpayers, while investments in ecological conservation must target rural areas, where the large majority of our best habitat remains ... The science is clear that urban areas cannot support the diversity and abundance of native fish and wildlife that rural areas can (if that obvious point even needs documenting). We still may invest in urban natural areas to improve our quality of life and minimize the harm urban areas do to larger ecosystems. But we must invest in rural areas if we are to save our natural heritage in this region.

Dicks agrees. He says that spending the money right where you raise it "is an 80s idea that has taken on a life of its own."

Whether or not there will be much new money to spend anywhere remains an open question. Dicks says he has found himself at odds with environmentalists who argue the Partnership should go for broke at the 2009 legislature. What better time to put a major Puget Sound bond issue on the ballot? Dicks doesn't think the current economic environment is likely to loosen the legislative purse strings for much of anything. Besides, he says, if most citizens still don't think Puget Sound has a problem, any public vote on Puget Sound bonds would be DOA.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Aug 7, 3:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Put our money where it will make a difference!: Great article! Environmentally conscious communities in our region need to put their money where it will make a difference, not simply where it will appeal to a collectively smug sense of being 'green'. The Thorton Creek project highlighted in the article is the perfect example. Why spend $10 million on Thorton Creek, which can promise only negligible impact on the health of Northwest salmon and related ecosystems, when the same money could have exponentially greater impacts in rural watersheds? Our misallocation of such funding highlights our own vanity. When we prioritize the projects in our own backyards that make us feel 'green' over than ones that actually promise a significant positive impact for wildlife, we cease to be true environmentalists and instead become true POSERS...

Buddy

Posted Thu, Aug 7, 4:33 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Put our money where it will make a difference!: The two shouldn't be mutually exclusive. Obviously there's only a limited amount of money to go around, and I agree with the premise that it should be spent where it will make the greatest impact if triage needs to be made. But let's take the (partial) daylighting of Ravenna Creek – I doubt it did much for the environment (though it has removed a burden from the sewage treatment system, and has helped flush out University Slough), but it has definitely been an improvement to Ravenna Park. Perhaps further such urban projects should come from a parks-specific budget.

Posted Thu, Aug 7, 5:11 p.m. Inappropriate

One thing I'm concerned about what you write...: I get nervous when I read, "Huge torrents of money dedicated to environmental good works already flow through government agencies and the western Washington economy. If those cash flows were channeled into projects that would help preserve and restore Puget Sound, the Partnership might not have to pass the hat for much new funding."

There is much waste on projects that don't produce results. But there are lots of projects that are successfull, and they are not getting the press they need to the broad public to support further funding from taxpayers. Also, speaking of spending money, the PSP has spent a lot of money this last year reprioritizing all the work that it's predecessors did without using any of it. We who have had to volunteer our hours in these meetings felt a distinct deja vu. Now the idea being floated is that the PSP becomes another bureaucratic layer between the funding of many dozens of restoration projects seems like it needs more discussion before any of us in the environmental community would think that's a great idea. Or am I reading your story wrong.

I fully agree with the notions of John Lombard, and yet, how much education has the PSP actually done in the last year to the public at large (not just the ones concerned about the environment)? Web sites aren't the same as real educational outreach to the broad public across the entire Sound counties.

It's feeling like the PSP needs to start doing some real heavy lifting around broad based citizen education, sooner than later, or farm it out to groups like E3 or P4PS. If Gregoire loses the election, there is no guarantee that Dicks will be around, as the charter (as I read it) of the PSP says that Dicks serves at the pleasure of the gov. Has Rossi mentioned the E word at all in his campaign yet? Given that his largest contributors are the developer community in Jefferson County, who are fighting the CAO process, makes me think it will be a shell of itself if he's elected.
8string

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Great idea, dosn't work: Dear Crosscut,
Don't you just love it how the people who make the problem don't want to be part of the solution? I can't believe that the Puget Sound Partnership is planning on taking Urban restoration off the table and instead would consider moving the solution where there is less of a problem. I live in Skagit County where you are bringing your dollars to do restoration and mitigation. I have seen you take perfectly good productive farmland out of production in the name of fish and quite frankly I don't care for it. Someday, Seattle is going to be hungry and Skagit Counties highly productive agricultural soils will not be here to feed you because it will have been converted to fish and wildlife habitat. So far we have lost 1,500 acres of farm ground to duck habitat, Fish and Wildlife has purchased 400 acres of sub tidal agricultural land in Bay View. We have one permitted wetland mitigation bank in Mount Vernon that is on former ag ground and another that we are fighting like heck not to allow in our county. My question is this, If we know that mitigation dosn't work why are we still allowing it in our state? I believe that we would be much better off Conserving the resources that we have than trying to destroy them and try to mitigate that distruction to other areas. Thanks for the article and the oportunity to educate those in Urban areas.
Don

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Great idea, dosn't work: Don, are these family farms we are talking about? If so, you probably have much in common with King County where Transfer of Development Rights inflates the value of farmland at the same time it encourages more of the remainder to disappear into "mitigated" development. Purchase of Development Rights is a lesser evil but PCC Farm Trust and other similar efforts have the best idea of all.

City kids raised right know it's fertile river valleys not "green" roofs, walls, or houses that sustain cities. We also know that its like war rationing--Saving Puget Sound means we all do our part in restoring a well functioning water cycle and all the other wonders of being alive. Like you, we may be spending the next few years defending and saving our naturally infiltrating sunlit yards in order to be able to use them more wisely.

What I can not explain is how all of a sudden we acquired so many unschooled city kids, they can't all be from Chicago. Keep your thoughts coming, we really really need them.
afreeman

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 11:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Fix it first: I am afraid I have to disagree with the idea of shifting natural resource amenities to rural areas. If you look to the Eastern United States, you will find that urban areas that neglected urban environmental restoration also suffered from urban blight leading to urban flight - exactly the opposite outcome from that we want. Just like neglecting to invest in maintaining urban roads, sewers, and schools, if we neglect to invest in the urban environment, we can expect cities and inner suburbs that will suffer from further private disinvestment - leaving behind blighted neighborhoods, failing schools and a lack of commercial investment.

We have learned that it is much more expensive to clean up or restore the environment than to prevent the harm in the first place. It's also less expensive to invest in fixing things now, rather than waiting until it's a public health crisis. Look to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where after decades of urban decay and neglect, they invested in restoration and are finding themselves an attractive area to relocate and invest. Had they shifted the restoration to rural areas, they would still be polluted and abandoned.

I am not sure what "tragic conflict between farmers and environmentalists" Mr. Lombard is referencing and how shifting urban restoration or the mitigation for urban destruction to rural areas addresses this supposed conflict. Maybe he believes that doing the same thing over and over and over, expecting different results is the answer to salmon recovery. After decades of creating "salmon habitat" in the form of buffers with no measurable success in restoration of the fishery, it's time for some new actions, not more spending on the same, inadequate efforts.

Eliminating agriculture from Western Washington - which is what the outcome of shifting all this "restoration" to Skagit will beget - would be a tragic situation. When agriculture goes, more sprawling development will be the replacement. Then, you will really be in a situation where "restoration" is expensive and unreliable.

Skagit Valley farmers use a creative and environmentally responsible system of crop rotation that is focused on minimizing pathogens (and hence, chemicals needed to control them), soil stewardship, and isolation for the varieties of vegetable seed crops that are grown there. Some of these seed crops can be planted only once in 13 years on the same ground. Some crops need at least three miles of separation from another crop of the same species. Reducing the gross number of acres available for this rotation will collapse the economic system.

Skagit farming is the basis for the food system in Western Washington; eliminate it, and you eliminate most of the commercial agricultural activity in the region. How does that support "eating local" or reducing our carbon footprint?

The failure of mitigation in Washington State is largely due to inadequate oversight of the program and projects - there was no inspection for over a decade, for example - and a lack of measureable standards for site selection and site design. Instead, the state focused on how the credits get assessed and released, ignoring the regulatory requirements of replacing lost ecological functions. Removing farming from Western Washington will not improve the environment or Puget Sound, and in the long run, it will ruin our real quality of life.
farago

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 4:03 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Fix it first: I don't think the article was suggesting that farming in the Skagit Valley be eliminated...

Posted Sat, Aug 9, 3:14 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Fix it first: Rock Rabbit, Skagit County zoned 83,000 acres of prime farmland as "agricultural land of long-term commercial significance" under the Growth Management Act. In the last year, 13,000 of those acres have been targeted for conversion to other uses.

The great majority of the loss will be to habitat conversion and mitigation. For example, the Washington Department of Ecology allowed applications for two "entrepreneurial" wetland mitigation banks to be processed which will remove 1,300 acres of that land from the potential to grow food forever - and are proposing to allow the developers to mine 700,000 cubic yards of soil from the site.

If each year 15 percent of the best soils in the state and country (Skagit soils rank in the top 1 percent in the world), are converted - well, you can do the math.
farago

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