Muddy waters of the Salish Sea

A new name for the Northwest waters could be a setback for those charged with cleaning up Puget Sound. On the other hand, maybe a fresh start is what's needed.
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A new name for the Northwest waters could be a setback for those charged with cleaning up Puget Sound. On the other hand, maybe a fresh start is what's needed.

On May 15, the Washington State Board of Geographic Names will take up initial consideration of the proposal to designate the Northwest's inland waters from Puget Sound in Washington to Desolation Sound in British Columbia as the Salish Sea. While the proposal won't change any existing names (Puget Sound and the straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, for example, would keep their names), it would give acknowledgment to a single ecosystem that crosses national, state and provincial boundaries. Many scientists, environmentalists and Indian tribes have already adopted the term, though it's not official in the U.S. or Canada.

But not everyone is enthusiastic about the name and whether the larger body of water needs to be identified as a distinct sea. In a recent Seattle Times story about the proposal, writer Warren Cornwall quoted Paul Bergman of the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency charged with cleaning up the Sound, as worrying about changing names in mid-stream: "We've already got the Michael Jordan of ecosystems," he said. "It wouldn't be helpful to change the brand right now."

I was curious about Bergman's comparison of Puget Sound to the former Chicago Bulls basketball star — just what does being "the Michael Jordan of ecosystems" mean? I also wanted to get a better sense of what his objection was to the Salish Sea proposal. Is Puget Sound really a brand? And how would the Salish Sea be a setback the partnership's work? We exchanged emails on the subject.

Bergman's answers were illuminating about the conundrum facing policy makers when it comes to restoring the health of the "toxic stew" that Puget Sound has become, awash as it is in PCBs, heavy metals, oil, raw sewage, pharmaceuticals, caffeine and everything else flushed through our our bodies and down our toilets.

Bergman is communications director for the Puget Sound Partnership and his worry is largely a communications problem that stems from public perception. Bergman notes research conducted by the partnership last summer that most people know what Puget Sound is, but that only 21% of the public thinks there's any real urgency in cleaning it up. A greater number (23%) think there's no problem at all. Given that scientists and the media have been making plenty of noise for years about the crisis facing these waters, it's disheartening that people seem to think the Sound is doing pretty well.

One challenge is to convince folks that there is a real crisis. Bergman worries that the Salish Sea name designation will confuse people. Many will construe it as a name change (not simply an overlay) and that it risks also become a whipping boy for right-wing radio as another example of PC politics run amok. Puget Sound is widely known by locals, akin, Bergman writes, to Nike or Microsoft or, yes, Michael Jordan in name recognition. So, "changing the name would only make it harder to reach people when the one thing working in our favor is that a majority of people know what you'ꀙre talking about when you say 'Puget Sound.'" Will people rally to save the Salish Sea, an entity most have never heard of? Not without having to solve an even bigger communication problem: explain the Salish Sea, then get people to worry about that from scratch.

Bergman says there are lots of theories about why more folks are clueless about the deterioration of the region's largest geographic asset, indeed the entity that made Pugetopolis possible. "I subscribe to three," he writes. "(1) It looks good, so what could be wrong with it?, (2) Government is good as selling success and progress, but no one wants to own problems, (3) Fewer people read newspapers anymore, the main media outlet that covers environmental issues." I would add that many of the Sound's problems are caused by the slow drip of a million little oil spills in your driveway, or a thousand little flushes in your bathroom. Thus, we don't have obvious bad guys to blame, like factories belching waste or oil tankers with drunken skippers running aground on Alki Point.

I also think he's right on with the "looks good" theory, it's postcard pretty, so where's the problem? Many of Puget Sound's problems are invisible, easy to ignore: it's not the flaming Cuyahoga River of Cleveland. The contaminants are deep or invisible, the toxins are in the body fat of Orcas and salmon, the diminishment of sealife is slow and as fisheries dwindle, so do the numbers of fishermen who complain. The urbanization of Pugetopolis has moved many of us further from direct connection with the Sound. Clamming, fishing, crabbing: these have become largely recreational activities for a few, not sustaining employment for many. So the Sound is not just postcard pretty, it's got a disease with few symptoms. Our kids will get used to the idea of there being few salmon in the Sound, just as we've gotten used to the idea that you couldn't walk across rivers during spawning season on the backs of migrating fish anymore.

Another discouraging aspect: the solution to the problem suggests too many personal lifestyle changes that cut against the growth ethic here, and suggest a life of inconvenience for us. The retired University of Washington geographer Richard Morrill says that 95% of our growth is still happening outside Seattle. That's because people want to live in this region, and we're still committed to welcoming all. We talk about increasing urban densities to solve our sprawl problems, but real density is mostly for the other guy. And besides, cities hurt the Sound too (just think of all the runoff from Seattle's paved hillsides). In short, the enemy is us and we're an enemy we're loath to face.

Bergman's third point about media coverage is well taken, especially in the wake of the folding of the print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer which had a well-deserved reputation for environmental reporting that will be difficult to duplicate in the low-budget realm of Web journalism. Its reporters and editors also made the Sound a priority. The complexity of trying to untangle, understand, and figure out how an ecosystem as complex and as sensitive as Puget Sound offers a challenge for any news medium: how do you capture a slow moving, invisible crisis the solution to which might mean we'd have to give up cherished bits of the American dream? The story might not get fully reported, but even when it has been, much of the public has tuned it out.

The decision to name the Salish Sea or not has interesting political implications. On the one hand, it would make the Puget Sound Partnership's job more complicated. On the other, it might be an opportunity to re-brand a crisis that needs re-branding. As Bergman himself jokingly points out, even George W. Bush got more than 21% approval. If the endangered Puget Sound alarms and detailed accounts of the plight of starving, poisoned Orcas, are falling on deaf ears, maybe a the crisis needs a makeover.

The appeal of the Salish Sea, and Bergman says he embraces the concept if not the actual name plan, is that it does a better job of educating people about the wider connections and implications of the problem, that it is international in scope and that the Sound is not isolated. Puget Sound cannot be made whole and healthy unless the rest of the ecosystem is well stewarded, from septic systems on Hood Canal to timber policies in remote parts of British Columbia few us will ever see. So while Puget Sound is a Michael Jordan "brand" it describes only a small part of the place and the problem. The Salish Sea Partnership would lose some alliterative appeal, but it's closer to defining the scope of task at hand. Even so, the pros and cons over the Salish Sea name suggest that the perceptions and politics of it might as complicated as the ecosystem itself.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.