Opinion Columns & Blogs

Acquisition, habitat projects help Puget Sound fish – and people, too

As a kid, I used to go steelhead fishing with my grandfather in the Nisqually River, which runs by our farm in the foothills of Mount Rainier. I can’t do that with my grandkids. Today, the average annual spawning runs of adult Nisqually steelhead are down to about 300 fish in the Nisqually River Basin.

Saving steelhead and salmon and restoring the habitat is something we cannot delay.

Right now our legislators face tough choices as they attempt to create a state budget that balances funding for our schools, our infrastructure, our social safety net, environmental needs, and so much more. We need to make sure we’re smart about how we spend our dollars.

One great investment that helps bring back fish and reconnect people with the outdoors we love is the Puget Sound Acquisition & Restoration (PSAR) Fund. This state fund pays for habitat restoration projects that are science-based, regionally significant and designed to bring back Puget Sound’s natural systems.

These kind of projects benefit salmon, people and the community.

Our state’s legislators have raised some legitimate concerns when it comes to land acquisition and habitat restoration work. But I don’t believe these concerns apply to the state’s PSAR Fund.

Will the public have access to lands purchased with state dollars? Will the land be taken care of? The answer to both questions is yes. Not only is public access required for all land purchased with PSAR funds (with rare exception), but projects must also have an approved, long-term plan for taking care of the land into the future.

I’ve also heard concerns about too much land being owned by state agencies, that the land will be taken out of “productive use,” and that the purchased acreage will reduce the local tax base. With PSAR, however, state agencies aren’t eligible to buy land. And the projects funded by PSAR tend to promote economic development and provide public benefits in the form of ecosystem services, such as flood protection, stormwater retention, water quality protection and water storage. This reduces infrastructure costs for local governments.

One good example of the kind of multi-benefit projects that need PSAR dollars to move forward is the Busy Wild Creek Protection project in our own Nisqually watershed.

This top-ranked project involves the purchase of 1,920 acres of forestland near Busy Wild Creek and the Mashel River, currently the lifelines for our threatened steelhead. Any further degradation in habitat quality – an almost certain consequence of three clear-cut timber-harvest permits that are currently active on the target property – and the chances of the species surviving will be severely impacted.

The landowner has given the Nisqually Land Trust, the sponsor of this project, one year before it exercises its permits and begins clear-cutting.

This project would also secure the most popular section of the Mount Tahoma Trails Association’s hut-to-hut cross-country ski trail, the largest no-fee trail in the country, which attracts some 3,000 visitors annually and is a significant economic driver in east Pierce County.

Without this transaction, the lease on the trail expires in 2017. With the transaction, the Land Trust can help assure that the trail will be open to the public in perpetuity. The Nisqually Land Trust has also agreed to open the area for hiking and hunting, and to explore development of a mountain biking trail.

Failure to fund acquisition and more adequately fund restoration puts all of us at risk. I think we risk losing the opportunity to keep Busy Wild as productive habitat and prime recreation space. We risk not being able to meet our legal and ethical responsibility to try to recover endangered Puget Sound chinook populations. I believe we risk a future where Puget Sound recovery could require less flexible, more regulatory and more costly approaches.

Salmon recovery investments made through the PSAR Fund have made a difference. Though not yet recovered, Puget Sound chinook are still here, and from what I’ve learned, PSAR projects have much to do with that success. Where we were seeing declines in nine salmon populations between 2001 and 2010, we are now seeing stabilization, with only one population declining and an actual increase in another.

Puget Sound is suffering. We must take more responsibility for our actions, recognize how a healthy Puget Sound benefits our economy and our quality of life, and work for a better future for our families.

Making sure we put money toward the PSAR Fund is one solid way we can do that. What’s good for salmon is good for us.

Jim Wilcox grew up on his family’s farm near Roy, along the Nisqually River, and spent his career managing Wilcox Farms, a major producer of organic eggs. Wilcox is also a member of the Leadership Council for the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency tasked with mobilizing and guiding the collective effort to recover and protect Puget Sound.