July 28, 2005

Saving salmon: Now the hard work begins

  • The regional plan is an effort to move past the legal snarls that typically stall progress on national resource issues.
    Shared Strategy for Puget Sound

    In the mid-1990s when salmon were listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, anxiety and tension ran high. Fresh off the spotted owl wars, many businesses, property owners, farmers and developers feared fish would be the next battle.

    Instead, Puget Sound has created a model for taking care of the needs of both fish and people.

    Recovery plans are usually written by federal officials. Not this time. Regional leaders felt a new approach was needed, and recovery planning should build on local efforts already under way. The Legislature empowered this approach in the 1999 Salmon Recovery Act.

    After years of collaboration — by federal, state, local and tribal officials, property owners, and environmental, community and business leaders across the Puget Sound — a draft recovery plan for chinook salmon was completed in June. It came together under a nonprofit group, Shared Strategy for Puget Sound, which seeks to move past the legal snarls that have typically stalled progress on natural resource issues.

    Our goal is a cost-effective salmon recovery plan endorsed by people living and working in the 14 Puget Sound watersheds, from the Cascade Mountains to the Olympics, from Nooksack to Hoodsport to Port Townsend.

    Restoring and protecting habitat and improving water quality for threatened Puget Sound chinook runs is the main focus of the plan. Because fish swim throughout the region, many actions for chinook will also benefit Hood Canal summer chum and bull trout, as well as other salmon and wildlife.

    Some of the actions being recommended can be implemented quickly through budget appropriations or program administration. Others may take a longer commitment. All have been endorsed by a wide range of property and forest owners, builders, farmers and other interests.

    For the business community, the plan will help reduce regulatory uncertainty created by the Endangered Species Act. It provides more clarity for how habitat can be protected and improved, and provides the opportunities to tailor requirements to the specific needs and characteristics of a site. It provides a context for how development activities can fit into the overall efforts in a watershed and Puget Sound. The objective is to provide more certainty and common sense to the contributions needed from the developers and other businesses.

    Good for humans, too

    Compounding the challenge of salmon recovery for the region is that we must find a way to accommodate the over 1 million people expected to arrive in the next 15 years in way that allows us to build homes for people and salmon. The recovery plan can help by supporting the construction of new homes and businesses where infrastructure exists and growth can be well accommodated, reducing risks and costs. The end result: Communities where people want to and can afford to live.

    There's also help for farmers and foresters in the plan. For more than a century, farmers have raised food for local tables and foresters have provided valuable timber resources. Both groups supported rural community growth and tended a vast landscape of fields and forests in the river watersheds of the Puget Sound region. Farming and forestry is vital to the economy of Washington state and the well-being of rural and urban communities.

    The declines in salmon and the increasing pressures on farming and forestry share a root cause. Poorly planned human actions continue to erode our natural areas, increase pollution, decrease water supplies and threaten working farms and forests. More than 20 percent of the farmland in the region, greater than 100,000 acres, was lost to other uses between 1982 and 1997.

    Many of the salmon-bearing rivers in the Puget Sound area are bordered by farm and forest land, and effective strategies promoting the future of farming and forestry and use of conservation practices are vital elements of the recovery strategy. If farming and forestry remain viable and farmers and foresters continue their commitment to conservation, a major part of the salmon landscape will be protected and restored. The futures of fish, farms and forests squarely depend on each other.

    The Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan lays out the amount and pace of effort we must work at to save king salmon. Although there are still science questions to be answered and decisions to be made, the next decade of work is clear. The plan is designed as a living document that will improve as new information is gained and as creative solutions are found to some of the challenging problems. Once adopted by federal officials, it will set the region's course for bringing salmon back.

    The recovery plan is in place. The federal government will conduct public hearings this fall. Now the real hard work begins. The question is whether we have the political will to implement it. This means changing the way we work, live and govern our communities. Most importantly, it means making the needed financial investments.

    We have come a long way since 1999. The number of communities and governments that came together in Puget Sound to save a species from extinction is unprecedented in the history of the Endangered Species Act. But now is not the time to rest, now is the time to redouble our resolve and our commitment. The health of our region — for people and fish — depends on it.

    Jim Kramer is executive director of Shared Strategy for Puget Sound, based in Seattle. Shared Strategy is a collaborative initiative by Puget Sound communities to create a future for people and salmon.

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