February 17, 2021
Community Voices / Thoughts on the Puget Sound Partnership and recovering Puget Sound
Al Bergstein

The iconic Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) is among many species whose existence depends on a healthy Salish Sea.(Image courtesy Zureks, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

February 17, 2021
Community Voices / Thoughts on the Puget Sound Partnership and recovering Puget Sound
Al Bergstein

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

When the Puget Sound Partnership, which is tasked with the recovery of Puget Sound, recently announced updates to their “desired outcomes” for recovery, I cringed. Why? Because we are now 14 years since the Partnership started this process, and in short, it’s not going well. 

It is understandable they might want to fine-tune their goal setting. But after reading an article by Christopher Dunagan for the Puget Sound Institute, I worry about the words that Chris surfaced in his article: “reduce the ongoing costs of recovery.” This comes across as another change of direction that is more concerned about costs than results. I hope I’m wrong.

The real goal that the Partnership has always stated is in fact recovery — not to reduce the cost of ongoing recovery. But reducing the cost may be impossible. Recovery may not be easy but it can be straightforward: 

  • Stop ongoing new habitat destruction, primarily along streams. 
  • Protect and improve water quality, i.e., road runoff, bacteria, etc.  
  • Fund habitat restoration projects that have the greatest effects on short-term results while continuing longer term large projects. 
  • Ensure public buy-in to the continued growing costs. 

The question I have is, when will we see real progress at saving the species at risk and making the Sound more “swimmable, fishable and diggable”? This was the goal the Partnership and the governor set in 2007.

In 2019, the Partnership reported on the State of the Sound and how well it was meeting its Vital Signs 2020 targets: 

Source: 2019 State of the Sound presentation

What’s happened?

I have attended Partnership regional meetings from the first one in Blyn back in, I believe, 2007, up to now.  The first wave of enthusiastic, environmental nonprofit groups rapidly found that there was little if any real money for them, we engaged in endless prioritization of lists over many months, there was no significant public relations efforts to get the public to support the efforts, and that an ever-changing array of management with new “ideas” showed up seemingly annually. 

The Partnership has always lacked a serious budget to educate the public about the issues that need to change to fix the Sound. It has been underfunded to achieve the goals that it was created to solve. Some of its most useful activities ironically are the monitoring it does to help identify baselines which illustrate its lack of progress. 

Could there be a better way to achieve the goals of Puget Sound recovery? Can this version of the Partnership actually succeed? Do we need a more radical than incremental approach to recovery?

The need for visionary leadership

It seems we need visionary leadership at this bureaucracy if we are going to see success. I do not mean to be critical of the current people, but we seem to need leadership that can take us to the next level, that can motivate the public and turn the huge wheel of issues in Partnership reports into an arrow of intent. 

The late, great Billy Frank, Jr., said it best at a meeting some years ago. I paraphrase: “No one is going to come save us. Not the President, not Congress, no bureaucracy. We have to save ourselves and our salmon, because we are the only ones that really care.”

Change is needed. The goals that the Partnership spent hundreds of hours tuning in 2007, 2008, 2009, etc. appear to be moving away from us like objects in a fast-flowing tide. Let’s hope the fish that supported the tribes, the ecosystems and us newcomers for the last 10,000 years aren’t heading out on the tide of time, too, while we sit in more meetings to find the right way to save them. 

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