Opinion

Aquatic reserve headed for failure unless DNR changes course

By PATRICK CHRISTIE

For The Beachcomber

As someone who has spent considerable time studying the management of marine protected areas, or MPAs, I find the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve of great interest. I applaud its creation and am fascinated by the planning process. I attend the public meetings with a tape recorder and video camera and have listened to both supporters and opponents of the reserve. I also attend meetings regarding the Glacier Northwest mine and the Puget Sound Partnership — the latest attempt to improve the ecological condition of Puget Sound.

The stakes are high. Scientists have demonstrated that our oceans are in decline due to myriad impacts. At national conferences people now discuss Puget Sound in terms of the dead zones of Hood Canal, the declining orca populations and collapsing salmon runs. What was once considered a relatively pristine environment has been degraded considerably.

In response, the state has created the Puget Sound Partnership, a promising and bold initiative, and the federal government, in addition to other actions, is launching a national system of MPAs of which Puget Sound’s aquatic reserves will be a part. Therefore, the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve is important locally and nationally.

And yet despite these efforts, I am increasingly concerned with the direction of Puget Sound management and, in particular, the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve. In short, I believe this reserve is headed toward failure unless dramatic steps are taken to improve the planning and implementation process and a careful analysis is conducted on the implications of developing a large mine at the shores of the reserve.

A successful MPA is predicated on a few principles established through careful, empirical research around the world. I’ve conducted such detailed research in the Philippines, Indonesia, Nicaragua and Hawaii and have read and reviewed hundreds of articles from around the world in my capacity as a researcher, teacher and editor for the academic journal Coastal Management. The principles of successful MPA are:

* A comprehensive assessment of the ecological conditions, habitat distributions and social dynamics of a proposed MPA to inform its initial design;

* Development of a management plan that is both ambitious and realistic and considers external dynamics affecting the MPA;

* Strong local community support and use of transparent and equitable decision-making processes;

* Objective monitoring and evaluation using biological and social metrics of progress;

* Policy makers’ effective and objective response to management challenges and conflict; and

* The support of a governance system that engages local, state and national institutions to support implementation.

The Maury reserve, managed by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), was declared for good reason, a decision validated by a panel of experts as one of the best areas of nearshore and inter-tidal habitat in central Puget Sound. DNR can take credit for the successful execution of this phase. Unfortunately, the rest of the process is not working well.

The obvious issue at hand is the potential expansion of Glacier Northwest’s mine adjacent to the aquatic reserve and its desire to build a large, barge-loading pier to support this dramatic increase in its sand and gravel extraction. This issue has the potential to derail the Maury reserve and possibly the entire DNR aquatic reserve program. Using the principles of effective MPA management as a guide, I have a number of concerns.

First, public participation for the reserve planning and mine permitting process has been poorly managed and, it appears, disingenuous. Government agencies have sought public input regarding the reserve and mine — and the response has been strong. The public supports the reserve and opposes the mine. If Glacier receives a lease to build its pier inside the reserve despite strong opposition, it will appear that DNR is coding public opinion as justifying the reserve while viewing opposition to the mine as NIMBY’ish.

In fact, the two cannot be separated. The same set of people support the reserve and oppose the mine and dock. DNR cannot retain the support of these citizens unless it can convincingly explain why people should support the reserve and its rules and accept an industrial-scale mine.

Second, DNR needs to consider much more carefully and objectively what it means to have an enormous mine at the shores of the aquatic reserve. I know of no MPA in the world where industrial-scale resource extraction is contiguous with an MPA designed to protect marine resources. Industrial-size mining and a large dock and barging operation are generally not considered compatible with the goals of a marine protected area.

Third, private consultants — many hired by Glacier — have conducted the habitat and impact evaluations, a highly questionable practice. Meanwhile, little to no scientific research has been conducted on public perceptions, economic impacts or management effectiveness. This is, in short, an example of questionable and incomplete “science” used selectively to justify particular positions.

Fourth, the growing potential conflict between the goals of the reserve and the adjacent mine have not been well managed. Citizens are waiting to hear how marine conservation and industrial-scale extraction can been reconciled, yet we hear next to nothing from DNR. As people attend meeting after meeting regarding the reserve and mine, it appears that DNR is incapable of or unwilling to respond clearly and objectively to this situation.

Doug Sutherland, the head of DNR, leaves office in January, when Peter Goldmark, the newly elected head, steps in. Many observers expect Sutherland to grant Glacier its lease to build its dock as a parting gesture to his detractors. If there is any sense that he is rushing the lease-granting process in response to his electoral loss, this will undermine the entire reserve implementation process for years to come.

Finally, this poorly handled process has enormous implications — not just for the DNR aquatic reserve program but for the wider efforts now under way to protect and restore Puget Sound.

The lack of integrated and effective decision-making at Maury — a high-profile situation — does not bode well for the Puget Sound Partnership.

How is it possible that one of the first aquatic reserves established to protect some of the Sound’s best remaining habitat is potentially threatened by an industrial mine even as we’re poised to spend millions of dollars on saving the Sound? Why has neither the Puget Sound Partnership nor Gov. Gregoire, its champion, weighed in on this case? How can the government ask Islanders to remove bulkheads or improve septic systems if those residents see government give the green light to a mine expansion project in such apparent violation of the reserve’s goals?

If DNR wants to fulfill its mandate — “to provide professional, forward-looking stewardship of our state lands, natural resources, and environment and to provide leadership in creating a sustainable future for ... all citizens” — it needs to slow the mine lease decision, consider the many concerns I and others have put forward and move forward carefully with the region’s citizens as true partners. If that doesn’t happen, I am afraid DNR is at risk of jeopardizing one of Puget Sound’s flagship MPAs and the entire aquatic reserve program.

— Patrick Christie is a University of Washington professor in marine policy and a Pew Fellow in marine conservation who uses the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve and Glacier Northwest mine as a case study in his courses. Check out the Wikipedia site that his students created after all parties visited his class: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Maury_Island_environmental_issues.

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