Puget Sound advocates take their message to Congress


Delegates stressed the need for a federal partnership with state and local governments to save salmon, orcas and Native American culture. Puget Sound Institute senior writer Christopher Dunagan visited Washington D.C. during the May 4 -6 ‘Day on the Hill’ event, in which Puget Sound representatives met with federal policymakers to advocate for ecosystem protection.

By Christopher Dunagan

With orcas and Chinook salmon closer to extinction than ever before, state and federal governments are being urged to spend more money to reverse these trends, which reflect a struggling Puget Sound ecosystem.

Last week, a delegation of more than 70 people, mainly from the Puget Sound region, carried that message to lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Meeting with senators and representatives, they shared information about progress in restoring the ecosystem and emphasized that Congress must not give up on Puget Sound.

“It was energizing to me to see how deeply people care about Puget Sound recovery and salmon recovery,” said Laura Blackmore, who took over as executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership on May 4. “To see people giving of their time and treasure to help Puget Sound was a wonderful way for me to start my new role.”

The urgency of the environmental crisis was understood by everyone who attended Puget Sound Day on the Hill, Blackmore said.

A harsh reckoning

U.S. Rep. Denny Heck. File photo
U.S. Rep. Denny Heck. File photo

U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, opened the first day of meetings by talking about the grave of Billy Frank Jr., the inspirational Native American leader who long advocated for treaty rights and environmental stewardship.

“I didn’t like it at the time,” Heck said of the words inscribed on the headstone. “It just didn’t resonate when I thought about Billy’s incredible life.”

But over time, Heck says he has come to realize that the grave marker reflects a harsh reality summarized in Billy Frank’s own words: “As the salmon disappear so do our tribal cultures and treaty rights. We are at a crossroads and we are running out of time.”

“We ARE running out of time,” Heck told the audience visiting the nation’s capital. “We really don’t have an unlimited amount of time to get the work done…We need to increase our investment.”

Ed Johnstone, an official with the Quinault Indian Nation and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said the tribes are fully engaged in the political efforts to recover salmon and Puget Sound, but those efforts are not enough. Tribal culture and a salmon-dependent way of life are slipping away, contrary to promises written into the treaties, he added.

“We are on the edge, and we fully understand that we are running out of time,” said Johnstone who came to Washington, D.C., with about 15 other tribal leaders.

New funding proposed

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and other House members from Washington state expressed optimism that control of the House by Democrats will lead to additional funding for salmon and Puget Sound.

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Federal lawmakers optimistic about Puget Sound funding

This week, Kilmer and Heck announced proposed funding increases for salmon and Puget Sound in advance of discussions by the House Appropriations Committee.

“Securing additional funding to restore the Sound is a big deal if we’re going to recover our salmon populations, if we’re going to ensure future generations can dig for clams, and if we’re going to respect tribal treaty rights,” Kilmer said in a news release.

The fiscal year 2020 Interior Appropriations Bill includes $33 million for the Puget Sound Geographic Program, a $5 million increase over the previous budget. The program, operated through the Environmental Protection Agency, can be used to improve water quality, enhance fish passage, increase salmon habitat and protect and restore shorelines.

Additionally, each of the 28 National Estuary Programs would get $100,000 more than the FY 2019 level, as well as a $3 million increase for competitive grants. The national program, currently at $27 million per year, addresses water quality and ecological health for major estuaries throughout the country.

Rep. Derek Kilmer speaks to Puget Sound groups during a previous 'Day on the Hill' event. Photo by Tessa Francis.
Rep. Derek Kilmer speaks to Puget Sound groups during a previous ‘Day on the Hill’ event. Photo by Tessa Francis.

Kilmer and Heck also reintroduced their PUGET SOS bill, which stands for Promoting United Government Efforts To Save Our Sound. The legislation is designed to enhance the federal government’s role in restoring Puget Sound with the creation of a special Office for Puget Sound Recovery at the EPA.

Working together

One strategy to increase funding, Kilmer said, has been to “hold hands” with folks from around Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, Long Island Sound and other troubled waterways. All are more successful when “speaking with one voice,” he noted.

Jacques White, executive director of the Long Live the Kings, moderated a panel on Puget Sound and Columbia River estuaries attended by dozens of staffers serving senators and representatives from many of the estuary regions — the so-called Congressional Estuary Caucus.

“Folks from other states got a pretty strong dose of tribal treaty rights, something that is new to folks back there,” White said in an interview after the meeting.

“We have a triple bottom line for estuary restoration,” he added, citing the effort to save orcas, salmon and treaty rights.

“The feedback I got from legislative staff and others was that the professionalism, focus and level of input on the issues this year was the best they’ve ever seen,” said White of the fifth annual Puget-Sound-Day-on-the-Hill gathering.

During meetings with the Puget Sound delegates, many congressional members were straightforward in explaining that funding is difficult because Congress is no longer functioning effectively. “Congress is broken” was a common expression.

Kilmer was recently appointed chairman of the “Fix Congress Committee,” formally known as the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. He says that he insisted, before taking the chairmanship, that the committee would be evenly split between Democratic and Republican members to create an atmosphere that will increase acceptance for the ideas that come forth.

Goals include improving transparency of government operations, reducing staff turnover to heighten expertise, and implementing new technology. High on the list of challenges is improving the budget and appropriations process, which Kilmer called “completely off the rails.”

“Green infrastructure”

Other members of the House are working on a bill to rebuild roads, bridges, docks, internet connections, water systems, sewage-treatment plants and other so-called ‘infrastructure.” The idea was a centerpiece of President Trump’s campaign and an issue embraced by Democrats.

“We have great bipartisan support for this,” Washington Sen. Patty Murray said, “but we have to fight cuts from the administration. Our opportunity is to make sure that it is not just money for infrastructure, but that it is done properly.”

The term “green infrastructure” has been used to describe improving stormwater management, restoring habitat and protecting the environment during all infrastructure reconstruction. Protecting the environment is a key part of the effort, Murray said.

According to the senator, the infrastructure plan is being developed in the House, because Senate Republicans fear that their efforts could end with a presidential veto. Trump has said he will veto any budget with spending above that in the last two-year budget. Although he has promoted up to $2 trillion in spending on infrastructure improvement, details have not been made public.

Climate change

Senator Maria Cantwell addresses Puget Sound 'Day on the Hill' delegates in Washington, D.C. Photo by Christopher Dunagan
Senator Maria Cantwell addresses Puget Sound ‘Day on the Hill’ delegates in Washington, D.C. Photo by Christopher Dunagan

As bills to improve the health of Puget Sound move through Congress, the specter of climate change threatens to undo many advancements, according to lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina. DelBene serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, which held a hearing on climate change last week.

“It was the first hearing in 12 years, yet this is a conversation that we should be having all the time,” DelBene told the Puget Sound delegates. “What is happening is truly stunning, and yet there are people in that conversation who feel we really don’t need to do anything.”

In Puget Sound, climate change is expected to alter shorelines, shift saltwater wetlands, change water flows in salmon streams and disrupt stable habitats. A consensus for action on climate issues is building across the country, DelBene said, and there is growing support from many sectors — including agriculture, which could use help in reducing erosion, easing floods and protecting soils.

“The agricultural community knows climate better than anyone,” she noted. “When I hear disagreements, it is when (farmers) feel that they don’t have a seat at the table” or that people don’t try to understand their unique position.

“There is a cost of doing nothing and we don’t often discuss this cost,” DelBene continued. “We are spending money everyday to mitigate for things taking place because we are not taking action.”

Threats of growth

Gerald I. James, a policy representative for the Lummi Tribe, told lawmakers that actions need to be taken now to protect salmon streams from rapid development in the Puget Sound region. Imposing 200-foot no-build buffers along salmon streams is one idea, he said. Especially troublesome, he added, is when large buffers along a salmon stream get reduced to strips of land as small as 25 feet when developable property becomes incorporated into a city and subject to new land-use rules.

Growth-management regulations have been created with good intentions, he said, but they are too easily amended. The result is degradation of streamside habitat and reduced salmon populations.

“Something has to change in our thinking, because we can’t continue on this pathway; we will have zero habitat left,” James said. “We may have success here or there, but it’s a tenth of what is needed.”

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell stressed the benefits of working together to solve environmental problems, as people are doing in Washington state.

“The amount of innovation and the amount of collaboration is phenomenal,” Cantwell said, going on to describe how farmers and fishermen managed to sit down together and allocate the use of water in the Yakima River basin.

That approach is how water should be managed in other places such as Northern California, she said, noting that almond growers are competing for water against natural systems. It appears that people would rather let salmon die than try to address the crisis, she said.

Cantwell also pointed to Washington’s Methow Valley in the North Cascades, where people came together and agreed that mining should not be allowed in an ecologically rich region where the economy is based on recreation, tourism and agriculture. The proposal, with widespread support, would remove 370,000 acres from mining for at least 20 years until permanent plans are adopted.

“That never would have happened without a collaborative effort,” Cantwell said. “We live in an age of huge disruption, and we need to think about every federal agency and what we can do to make them cost effective.

“People need to realize that public lands are the front lines of climate change,” she added, “and we need to pay more attention to how they are managed.”

Going forward

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, said people should not despair at what appears to be environmental setbacks in the current political climate, nor should they retreat from economic justice or civil rights issues.

“We are seeing erosions in so many things we care about,” she said. “It is the effectiveness of your advocacy that results in the backlash. They are afraid of the momentum we are building. I want you to know how important advocacy is. We in Congress can’t get anything done without advocacy at the state and local level.”

Puget Sound Day on the Hill was organized by the Puget Sound Partnership. Participants included representatives of state and local governments, non-profit organizations, tribes and a variety of businesses. Travel expenses were covered by the organizations represented at the event.

Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute.