Opinion

Protecting the Sound is more urgent than ever | Commentary

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This oft-quoted call to arms — words made famous by Margaret Mead — has never been truer as those of us fighting on the frontlines of Puget Sound recovery strive to turn the tides. In fact, an absence of citizen involvement in this work could be the death knell for the Salish Sea.

Current evaluations document a critically imperiled waterway, with vast eelgrass loss, closed shellfish beds and precipitous declines in herring, salmon and orca populations. Add dozens of species listed as endangered or threatened, and the outlook is sobering.

This jeopardized status comes after decades with government agencies tasked as environmental protectors. And, while issues like climate change present new questions, the biggest ecosystem threat is already known. Impact from shoreline development destroys vital habitat with every bulkhead, dock and stormwater outfall built. As recovery planning rightfully evaluates how to restore lost nearshore functions, a simple yet essential pathway is certain. Stop allowing habitat loss.

Thanks to the work of environmental organizations and progressive legislators, there are already good laws that prohibit environmentally damaging proposals and direct how to perform any allowed work to ensure fish protection. Unfortunately, these laws are ignored by regulatory agencies each and every day, with each and every permit.

Last year, Preserve Our Islands (POI) began working to establish much-needed regulatory reform. With this new mission, we set our sights on the shoreline permits under the jurisdiction of the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW). Called an HPA, they are a requirement of all nearshore development proposals.

We had hoped directives from Puget Sound recovery planning had changed the way agencies approached nearshore permits and that basic environmental laws were now being applied. However, after performing permit reviews, we found just the opposite. Using a highlighter to mark the spreadsheet when projects didn’t include proper regulations, we were sadly left with a bright warning beacon of solid yellow paper after our audits.

Last week, we learned more alarming news. The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife has recently initiated an overhaul to the rules governing these shoreline permits, convening a stakeholder group as an advisory panel.

Although this could have been an opportunity to use ecosystem experts to strengthen regulations, the non-agency members of the stakeholder group were primarily the mining, timber and development interests subject to the regulations themselves. While we’re relieved that tribal representation and at least one environmental group are at the table, the approach of using regulated parties as regulatory advisors is incredibly troubling. Not surprisingly, the early draft of the proposed changes finds a weakened permit program prevailing.

In upcoming months, WDFW will hold more behind-the-scenes meetings, ultimately releasing the final draft proposal for public comment. With that, POI will now be knocking on those meeting doors, stepping inside and tenaciously working to make sure these laws are not gutted.

Similarly, we will continue to boldly go where no other environmental group has gone before by acting as a watchdog group, reviewing each nearshore permit being considered by WDFW, then fiercely advocating for the application of mandated environmental protections.

We’ve spent time carefully preparing for this work by expanding the board of directors and creating a thoughtful strategic plan based on concrete, achievable actions. But we can’t do this alone and now more than ever, we are urgently asking you to join us.

Last week People for Puget Sound, one of the largest grassroots environmental organizations in the region and a stalwart ally in the fight for Maury Island, announced it was disbanding. With this, there is now a dangerous chink in the armor currently defending the Sound.

Which brings us back to the opening statement. With all that is at stake, and with People for Puget Sound’s guiding light now dimmed, it is time for every one of us to step up and put a shoulder to the stone. And, although we have options on how to take action — making a donation, writing letters, volunteering or electing strong leaders — we don’t have the option of taking no action when it comes to protecting Puget Sound.

It is up to all of us to pick up the baton and be not just people for Puget Sound, but people fighting for Puget Sound. If this seems like a David and Goliath battle, remember we have a pretty good track record there and that change truly does come from groups of thoughtful committed citizens working together.

 

— Amy Carey heads Preserve Our Islands. Learn more by visiting its website, www.preserveourislands.org.

 

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