Has the Puget Sound fallen out of political favor?

People for Puget Sound has shuttered and this year's candidates are barely glancing at the issue. How will Puget Sound fare without an advocate?
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People for Puget Sound has shuttered and this year's candidates are barely glancing at the issue. How will Puget Sound fare without an advocate?

Sinking toward the depths of regional memory, People for Puget Sound scuttled itself on September 11, announcing that after 21 years as a voice for protecting and restoring the Sound, it was handing off its policy work to the Washington Environmental Council, its restoration work to EarthCorps, and closing its doors.

Executive director Tom Bancroft, hired last year to replace the organization's retiring founder, Kathy Fletcher, explained that "it's been in the works for years." Bancroft said he had "worked really hard this whole last year since I've been here to try to save the organization. . . . It just wasn't enough."

Former communications director Mike Sato, who was laid off last year in the first of three cutbacks, wrote in Crosscut that the news left him "angry, disappointed and sad.." Sato suggests that the organization went through crises in the past, but in those days, "it was a cause and not just a balance sheet."

One wondered, of course, from the time that Fletcher stepped down whether or not the organization could survive without her. One thinks of Max Weber's concept, "the routinization of charisma" — in other words, the need to replace a leader who commands personal loyalty with a bureaucracy whose authority is purely institutional. Could they do it? Obviously, the answer is "no." But if you listen to the people at the organization's helm, they didn't have much of a chance.

Leaders of People for Puget Sound say basically that the organization over-extended itself in the good times and paid the price when the economy turned bad. "The organization grew really fast between 2006 and 2011," Bancroft says. Thanks to the recession, "the revenue sources didn't grow as fast."

Board chair William Derry says that the group had been living on its cash reserves, hoping that things would turn around. "Our revenues have been declining for several years," Derry says. "This includes individual giving and the availability of grants and contracts from foundations and government agencies. We took several actions to reduce costs including a significant lay-off a year ago. We have been using our reserve funds for the last few years hoping that the economy would recover more quickly and our funding would return to previous levels. That hasn’t happened."

Would anything have worked? Derry suggests that to pull the organization out of its financial nosedive, "we would have had to have larger lay-offs starting 2 or 3 years ago." Just carrying on wasn't an option.

There's a certain sense of deja vu: This year, People for Puget Sound's functions will be absorbed by other not-for-profit groups, leaving no organization dedicated to restoring the Sound. Twenty-two years ago, the old Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, established by the legislature as an independent advisory group — and chaired by Fletcher — was disbanded, its functions absorbed by a new Puget Sound Action Team in the state Department of Ecology.

The real reason was pressure from industry. The rationale was that once government internalized the Authority's functions, the Sound would actually be better off. Fletcher responded by forming People for Puget Sound. Sato, who had worked with her at the Water Quality Authority, went along. What happened then? The Action Team produced good information, never generated much action, was ultimately replaced by an earlier Puget Sound Partnership and then by the current group — which, arguably, has yet to generate much action of its own.

Has the magic gone out of Puget Sound as a political issue? We continue to spend money yes, we see some spectacular successes — Elwha Dam removal is the obvious poster project — but on a policy level, the Sound seems to have slipped onto the back burner, if not totally off the stove.

Look at the websites of the two candidates for Governor. McKenna's list of issues doesn't include "environment" or "quality of life," much less "Puget Sound." Inslee's site does make space for "quality of life," under which it says, "As someone who grew up along the shores of Puget Sound, Jay has been a strong supporter of efforts to clean those troubled waters, including co-sponsoring the Puget Sound Recovery Act." (The act, passed in 2009, a year after Norm Dicks and Maria Cantwell first introduced it, established an EPA grant program dedicated to Puget Sound restoration efforts and authorized up to $90 million a year for administration and grants.) Period.

This isn't to say that the candidates don't care, but the Sound's lack of visibility isn't reassuring. Nevertheless, Derry says, "I believe Puget Sound is still an important issue within the state government agencies and with elected officials."

This spring, Jay Manning, who directed the Department of Ecology from 2005 to 2009 and served as Governor Chris Gregoire's chief of staff for two years after that, suggested that state government was a lot more focused on Puget Sound than it had been five years earlier. "There has been a ramp-up in attention," Manning said, although "whether that has had time to make any kind of difference I would frankly be skeptical."

He wasn't sure, though, that the state's new interest was visible to anyone on the outside. "In my little world, it's still front and center," he said. But it was "never clear to me out there in the greater world that it ever got onto the radar screen."

Obviously, Derry says, "the State is facing its own revenue challenges as a result of the economy. And the high unemployment rate is clearly a top priority for elected officials. But I don’t believe that means that Puget Sound is a back-burner issue."

In a way, efforts to restore Puget Sound seem a bit like efforts to arrest climate change: Earnest people do earnest things. A lot of money gets spent. Things are a whole lot better than they would have been. And yet. . . .

Bancroft says that at a grass-roots level, there are still lots of people who care about the Sound. That's clearly true. People love their beaches, their streams, the places where their kids play. People for Puget Sound has tapped into that feeling.

Individual concern and local actions that don't make headlines are important. But how far can we go without state or regional action that does make headlines — and without an advocacy group that may not always be realistic but is always passionate and always there ?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.