It seemed a great omen for a first meeting with Tom Bancroft, who in June will succeed Kathy Fletcher as executive director of People for Puget Sound: The ferry on which I rode veered, slowed, lay almost dead in the water, as passengers rushed to the port side windows to see a whole pod of killer whales heading north through the Sound.
Their big dorsal fins jutted up through the choppy water. Their sleek bodies curved up into daylight and back down again. Some of them leapt clear of the water. The middle-aged watchers seemed just as excited as the kids.
I described the scene later in People for Puget Sound's Western Avenue conference room, looking out at the Sound (and the Alaskan Way Viaduct), where a small group of journalists sat down with Bancroft, Fletcher, and the group's long-time communications director, Mike Sato. Later, Bancroft said he hoped to see orcas like that soon.
Bancroft hasn't spent much time here yet. He has spent a lot of time in the other Washington, the past three as chief scientist and vice-president of the National Audubon Society, and the previous 10 at the Wilderness Society, where he was vice-president for ecology and economic research. Last year, he spent a good deal of time on Audubon's response to the Gulf oil spill. Before that, he was in Florida, working on Everglades and other Sunshine State environmental issues. (Bancroft was introduced the next day, April 6, at People for Puget Sound's 20th anniversary luncheon. Fletcher founded the group in 1991 after serving as head of the Puget Sound Water Quality, which was replaced by the Puget Sound Action Team, which was replaced by an early version of the Puget Sound Partnership, which was replaced by the current version of the Puget Sound Partnership.)
Bancroft said he liked the idea of working regionally again, cooperating with local activists, getting his boots in the mud. He also looks forward to working with groups that focus on preserving and restoring habitat higher up in the watershed. He said People for Puget Sound will stay focused on the Sound itself, but the organization can be part of a whole ecosystem approach.
The discussion turned to stormwater, which carries toxic crud from miles of asphalt and concrete into the Sound, and land-use patterns, which spread pavement — and disrupt natural flows — through the watershed. Bancroft may not be from around here, but he certainly understands that stuff.
One thing he didn't understand: He said that when he visited the Puget Sound area in the past — as he did frequently when he worked for the Wilderness Society — the issue of salmon recovery seemed to be a really big deal. Now, it seems to have largely faded from view. He didn't know why. Has it really faded? The next day, I asked Wild Fish Conservancy executive director Kurt Beardslee about Bancroft's observation.
"I agree," Beardslee said. "I think ... fatigue has set in." In part, "I don't think people have seen enough exciting results from recovery to hold their interest." And in part, he thinks many people "are still confused about why we're killing these fish we're trying to restore." (Beardslee's group is one of the few among environmentalists that's willing to finger commercial and recreational fishing as a major problem.)
No one brought up that kind of awkward subject with Bancroft, but people did raise the awkward subject of the Puget Sound Partnership, how well it was doing, and how many eggs People for Puget Sound was willing to put in that particular basket. Fletcher, who was at the table when the Partnership was formed and sits on its Ecosystem Coordination Board, said the group was important, but emphasized that People for Puget Sound had never sat back and relied on someone else to deal with the Sound's problems.
She and Bancroft both suggested that the Partnership seemed to be moving forward more aggressively now, under new leadership, than it had before, but they thought that the state had blown the oportunity to build on the momentum that Puget Sound issues had when the Partnership was created back in 2007. Now, as Fletcher said, "the sad truth" is that the state has no money and no political will.
Still, the Partnership is pressing on to develop targets, the biological, physical, and social benchmarks that will indicate a healthy Sound. Last year, it — finally — came up with a list of 20 "dashboard indicators," the categories that will be measured to gauge progress toward the goal of a healthy Sound by 2020. (Gov. Chris Gregoire announced that goal when she signed the 2007 legislation that created the Partnership. That moment, with the governor standing by the shore, probably represented the high-water mark of visibility for the current save-the-Sound campaign.) The indicators include the population trends of orcas and salmon, the extent of eelgrass beds, the size of the commercial fish harvest, and the concentrations of toxics in sediment and fish. But within those categories, no one has established how good is good enough. Now, the Partnership must set the number or numbers for each indicator that reflects a healthy Sound.
Bancroft said that working out meaningful targets will be difficult. Fletcher agreed. She explained that the Partnership will have to make a hard choice between setting scientifically based targets that must be hit if we really want a healthy Sound and targets that people figure there's enough money and political support to hit by 2020. In other words, are we talking about what we should do or what's the best that we figure we can do?
Fletcher said that if an inherent physical barrier prevents hitting a target — if, for example, you can't get there by 2020 because it will take more than nine years for trees to grow — that's one thing. But if the barriers are political or financial, that's another. She doesn't think we should compromise on targets in order to accomodate a lack of money or will.
And she figures that an aggressive campaign to restore the Sound might win more public support than most people assume. Fletcher said she was a bit skeptical of the Partnership's premise that most people still don't realize the Sound needs saving.
That finding came from a survey taken in 2007, but she thinks the wording of the question skewed the result. She says she probably would have answered "no" to that question as it was worded, too. Her own personal experience, talking to a variety of audiences, has been that convincing people of the Sound's problems isn't all that hard.
Still, Fletcher conceded, there's a delicate balance between stimulating concern and sounding alarmist. "You don't want to tell them it's dead," she said. "It's not." Of course it's not. Just ask those orcas. And while you're at it, ask them about the salmon. And about the quality of the stormwater that flows off all that asphalt and concrete. And . . . some of the other indicators they might see.