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Two ways to look at the sea, and a search for objective facts

Nature Conservancy ecologist Roger Fuller takes measurements in the estuary of the Stillaguamish River. Credit: Bridget Besaw

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s July executive order establishing a National Ocean Council, the eyes of environmentalists, researchers, and other interest groups throughout Washington state and beyond are turning towards the sea, with the realization that it remains the planet’s last frontier, where a vast trove of resources remains unexploited — and, in the view of many, a vast array of life forms remains inadequately protected.

To some, the primary problem is a dearth of knowledge about what happens on and below the 71 percent of the earth’s surface that consists of oceans. The closer one gets to shore, the more intense the range of often competing human uses of the sea becomes. With all their maritime traffic, recreational users, fisheries, and pollution sources, the waters that lap the shores of western Washington constitute a case in point.

A new concept known as marine spatial planning (MSP) is playing a key role in advancing that understanding, and figures prominently in the Obama administration’s emerging national policy. State legislation that took effect in June defines the concept as “a public process of analyzing and allocating the spatial and temporal distribution of human activities in marine areas to achieve ecological, economic, and social objectives.”

“It’s basically putting everything we know about Puget Sound on maps that anyone can look at, understand and offer input,” said Robin Stanton, Washington state media relations manager for the Nature Conservancy, explaining the approach in local terms. The conservancy is using a $700,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant to study and improve estuarine systems in seven western Washington deltas, from the Nooksack in Whatcom County to the Skokomish in Mason.

Mentioning one area of study, she said that, in theory, tidal turbines for generating carbon-free energy “should go where the current is strongest — those are all rocky habitats beloved by divers and fishermen, and important for fish. There are seven permits for pilot sites in Puget Sound. Six of them are in places that have been identified as high-priority habitat.”

The most tangible result of MSP is an interactive, color-coded chart that depicts the ocean surface and floor, as well as the activities and living communities that demand space everywhere in between — and sometimes bump up against each other.

A Nature Conservancy release describes MSP as “a public policy process,” and the concept forms the crux of the state legislation. State senator Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island), the bill’s primary sponsor, said MSP “gets in front of the user conflicts in the ocean. A few years ago there was a proposal for a wind farm off of southwestern Washington. The developer was quite a ways into the permitting, and then the crabbers stood up,” noting interference with critical habitat for young crab. Other interest groups raised concerns, too.

“Because we didn’t have any holistic way of looking at this, the project died,” Ranker said. “If we had had a marine spatial plan in place, the developer would have known where the best places to site the [wind farm] plan were.”

Among other things, the new law instructs an existing interagency team to recommend a framework for conducting MSP and integrating it into existing planning efforts. That process will not require any new state expenditures, but the meat of the statute, which calls for the creation of a comprehensive, MSP-based marine management plan for the state, can be implemented only if non-state funding — $4.5 million of it — finds its way to Olympia for that purpose. Those funds would have to come from the federal government, local jurisdictions, and/or private donors.

Given the state government’s financial straits, the bill, as eventually passed, even omitted a $62,500 Department of Commerce expense that the original bill would have drawn from state coffers. The law instead assigns that relatively small sum, too, to non-state sources which have yet to materialize.

Ranker, who in private life “consults on national ocean policy and coastal community development in Washington, D.C.,” according to the Senate Democrats’ website, noted that many disparate agencies — port authorities, the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, the Department of Ecology, and so on — have a stake in marine issues, “and never shall they talk [with each other]. This bill changes that, and in a very positive way.”

He said MSP will fill in many data gaps that hobble good decision-making. “What we don’t have is human use data. We don’t know what are the most important areas for recreation. We don’t know what are the best areas for kayaking, for sailing.”

While the grander dream of a fully coordinated state ocean plan may wait a long time for the requisite funding, that doesn’t mean nothing is happening locally with MSP in the meantime. On the strength of its $700,000 EPA grant, Nature Conservancy ecologist Roger Fuller can be found these days in the Stillaguamish delta in Snohomish County, measuring the buildup of sediment that gets spit well out into the sea by what he calls the “pinched-hose effect” of river-confining dikes. The result starves coastal wetlands of the replenishment they need. It’s work such as his that furnishes MSP’s raw data.

“We’re providing technical data for decision-making,” he said, adding that the idea is “to look at the vulnerabilities of estuaries and the adjacent human communities, to look for the tidal marshes’ potential to protect human infrastructure.”

He and Stanton note the progress of a Nature Conservancy project in the Skagit River delta, where dikes built to protect farmland have constrained Skagit floodwaters that naturally would disperse in tidal marshes, and have thus increased the severity of major floods by limiting the interchange of waters between land and sea. Plans call for moving a dike away from a slough, thus opening up new marsh to absorb more water and allowing river waters to reach their destination more naturally.

Fuller pointed to “big habitat benefits, and benefits for the farming community. It’s really unusual to have both the restoration and farming communities working together.”

Fuller’s project, and a smaller Nature Conservancy project funded by Boeing that is also surveying Puget Sound marine life, provide an inkling of the larger statewide process that the new law foresees — a process that remains “very much in the development stages,” in the words of Paul Dye, marine program director for the conservancy in Washington state.

Ranker shares Dye’s assessment. “There are many questions about how to implement MSP on a national level,” he said. Conservative commentators have decried MSP, and the national policy, as yet another set of federal tentacles intent on choking off long-cherished liberties and entrepreneurial initiatives. As the conservative National Review lamented, “green ideology trumps ordinary human freedoms.”

Here in Washington, those views are echoed by State Senator Val Stevens (R-Arlington), one of the two senators who, along with 30 House members, voted against Ranker’s bill.

“It’s very loosey-goosey,” she said. “It provides an avenue for a lot of mischief. We watched as the liberal environmentalists created similar policies to create our land use law, which has driven most of the farming out of the western side of Washington. Now they’re going to move into the ocean.”

“It could be perceived as top-down — the feds coming in with a mandate,” Ranker said. He added, however, that “everybody I’m working with at the federal level says they want this to come from the bottom up, from the states. Everybody I’ve spoken with at the federal level says, ‘Let’s not try to bite off the whole country at once. Let’s not push this on states that don’t want this yet.’”

The state law, he said, “was a way of showing the federal government that we’re serious about doing this, but we’ll need their help.”

Whether the goal of coordinated state or national planning for ocean development, restoration, and preservation ever becomes a reality is a question no one can answer today. And it is the success or failure of inconspicuous local work, in myriad places like the Skagit and Stillaguamish deltas, that will ultimately provide that answer, pro or con.

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