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Island nonprofit sets its sights on continued conservation efforts

Before the county’s purchase of Glacier Northwest’s mining site on Maury Island was complete last January, ending the largest environmental battle in Vashon’s history, Amy Carey, director of Preserve Our Islands, was already questioned on the future of POI.

“We were hearing early on, ‘Please, you’re not going to close your doors,’” Carey said.

Indeed, Preserve Our Islands’ sole purpose for almost 15 years was to prevent Glacier from expanding its mining and barging operation on Maury. After partnering with the county and other environmental organizations to achieve that goal, it seemed as if POI’s work was done.

Carey, who has headed the nonprofit since 2007, said closing shop was an option the organization considered, but not for long.

“We want to move forward,” she said. “We’ve gained and learned so much here, and we have a lot of value to contribute.”

After spending months re-searching current conservation efforts in Puget Sound, interviewing local experts about gaps in environmental protection and surveying its membership, POI’s board has chosen to move forward with a new mission in the same spirit of improving Puget Sound.

In what Carey calls a dual pathway, the organization will continue its presence on Vashon, staying involved in the development of the Maury site while working on other local conservation issues. It will also expand its reach to act as a regional watchdog for shoreline-related construction permitting.

“It feels really exciting to continue the momentum of this community organization, to go forward and do more good,” Carey said. “It’s a different kind of excitement than fighting a giant mining company.”

Tom Dean, director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, said he’s pleased POI will continue to work with the county as it develops a management and cleanup plan for the former Glacier site, which has soil contaminated by the historic Tacoma smelter plume.

“There’s a lot of work there for an advocacy group that the land trust just can’t do,” he said.

Carey said POI, which has done extensive research and testing at the Maury site, has a lot of information to provide the county and will help form a citizen advisory group for the site. She said the organization also hopes to get involved with other important environmental efforts on Vashon, such as improving the poor health of Quartermaster Harbor.

Though the county seems to have a handle on overseeing Vashon’s Marine Recovery Area, Carey said, POI could perhaps act as a friendly local face for homeowners faced with replacing their septic systems. And it will provide oversight and advocacy as the state Department of Natural Resources soon updates its management plan for the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve, which includes all of Quartermaster Harbor and the southeast shore of Maury.

“There’s a lot of focus, rightfully so, on the health of Quartermaster Harbor right now,” Carey said.

But, as Carey noted, Puget Sound is all connected, and one of the greatest threats to its health is near-shore development. Though state and local regulations on construction are meant to protect aquatic habitat, Carey said permits are often granted without adequate protections in place.

“Glacier was clearly not an exception to the rule,” Carey said. “Over and over again the same thing that was happening in the Glacier fight happens on a lot of projects.”

In its research, Carey said, POI discovered that environmental groups currently provide very little watchdogging for permit approval. As an example, Carey said that in 2010, the state Department of Fish & Wildlife approved about 500 permits for projects such as docks, bulkheads and storm-water discharge, denying only one because of a clerical error. Its own audits found that about 20 percent of the time its permits didn’t meet environmental standards, she said.

“That’s not just 2010; it’s pretty much every year,” she said. “It’s incredibly rare for a permit to be denied.”

State Sen. Sharon Nelson, who founded POI in 1997 and was its president for five years, said she is pleased to see the organization now taking on the issue of permitting.

Not only do agencies sometimes issue permits without proper environmental protections, she said, it is difficult to assure applicants provide accurate information or ultimately follow restrictions given by the state.

“It’s a major concern,” Nelson said. “The difficulty in saving Puget Sound is that it looks so beautiful on the surface, and yet its troubles are so deep. Each and every action going on in Puget Sound has an effect, and that’s why organizations like POI are critical.”

As POI takes on a new mission, it will also reexamine how it is structured, Carey said, likely adding to its three-member board, currently chaired by Islander Patrick Christie. Last year POI moved from an all-volunteer organization to a paid staff model, with Carey as its sole employee.

POI has also begun fundraising for the first time since 2009, excluding when it helped raise funds to purchase the Glacier site.

Just days after Carey sent hundreds of letters to POI supporters explaining the organization’s new direction and asking for continued support, a large pod of orcas made its way down the eastern side of Vashon.

Carey, who was at Point Robinson to witness one of the most spectacular shows orcas have put on off Vashon in years, said the experience was a stark reminder of POI’s mission.

“Let’s keep those orcas jumping off our shoreline,” she said.

 

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