Column: Steeled courage from state lawmakers needed for steelhead habitat
A last legislative push is needed to save Nisqually River’s storied steelhead run.
ASHFORD — If you want to know why Puget Sound salmon are disappearing, you need to head upstream.
In the case of the Nisqually River’s vanishing wild steelhead, 40 miles upstream.
It’s here, high on the western flank of Mount Rainier, you’ll find Busy Wild Creek, the upper reach for spawning steelhead.
The creek flows through a steep-walled drainage, all but hidden from sight. To reach the headwaters, you need permission from the Hancock Natural Resource Group, the world’s largest manager of timberland investments for private-equity investors.
Hancock owns much of Busy Wild’s thick mantle of second-growth Douglas fir, and it has the permits needed to log it. To stop that from happening, the state Senate, in these waning days of the legislative session, must do what’s right and save a steelhead run dangerously close to the point of no return.
Only 400 steelhead made it back last winter to spawn in the Mashel River and Busy Wild, which feed into the Nisqually.
To its credit, Hancock has offered to sell about 1,900 acres of Busy Wild land to the Nisqually Land Trust for preservation. The price: about $6.5 million. Hancock and the land trust have a successful history of working well together on such purchases, says Joe Kane, the land trust’s indefatigable executive director.
While Hancock has a good reputation and is known for following state logging rules, Kane said, biologists fear logging on the exceptionally steep terrain and unstable soils may push a threatened run of steelhead and chinook to the point of extinction.
For now, Hancock has agreed to hold off on logging to give the trust time to come up with the funding. But the clock is ticking. The state should seize this opportunity and do the right thing and spare the Busy Wild.
That’s where the Senate comes in. Even though the Busy Wild project was ranked highest on a list of projects deserving of state dollars, the GOP-controlled Senate flexed its muscles this session and decided not to fund habitat acquisition.
That’s a mistake that could still be fixed in negotiations with the House.
Some senators believe the state has overspent on wildlife habitat at the expense of recreational trails, parks and restoration. This should not be an either/or proposition.
Led by state Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, the Senate capital budget underfunds Puget Sound restoration projects, ensuring no funding would be available to spare Busy Wild or other significant acquisitions.
My question is: Are we trying to save Puget Sound or not?
In a guest column in The Seattle Times, Honeyford said his approach placed a higher priority on parks and trails.
State Rep. Hans Dunshee, chair of the House Capital Budget Committee, said Honeyford’s position is “part of this ideology of hating government, and the purchase of public land is a manifestation of that.
“We have all kinds of documentation that these kind of land acquisitions do not hurt the local economy, they help, but that sentiment is just kind of stuck in Sen. Honeyford’s head.”
As the Senate’s capital budget architect, Honeyford took a similar tack in funding for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program. None of the $68.8 million can be used for designated “natural areas,” “critical habitat” or “urban wildlife.”
The move prompted howls from former Govs. Dan Evans and Mike Lowry, who wrote a recent Times guest column urging the Senate to reverse course. Hunting, birding and recreation groups from across Eastern and Western Washington harangued Honeyford for his approach.
Particularly galling was his decision to ignore a ranked listing of projects to be funded, created by city and county officials, and various experts. In a letter to Honeyford asking him to reconsider, state Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, wrote, “The integrity of the program … ensures that projects are evaluated on their merits alone, which has built trust among stakeholders — many who have worked for years to bring their project to the WWRP this biennium.”
In a truly bizarre twist, the Senate skipped over 15 projects on the farmland preservation list to fund two of the lowest-ranked projects. Around $7.5 million was budgeted for land-preservation agreements on two Klickitat County ranches.
With the chance to save Busy Wild Creek slipping away, the statewide advocacy group Washington Environmental Council last week activated its phone bank in a plea to ask supporters to call three senators for support and money for Puget Sound restoration. After fueling up on tamales, a dozen or so volunteers made 250 phone calls.
Among lawmakers who could help is Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, vice chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee for school finance. While the Busy Wild is in Pierce County, Dammeier said he was unfamiliar with it, but he acknowledged that most legislators would agree that saving a wild salmon run is a worthy goal.
“We try to focus on those projects where, if we don’t act now, it might go away. Acting in two years might be too late,” he said.
Dammeier is right about that. The Nisqually River once supported an annual run of 8,000 steelhead. We may already be too late, but we can’t give up now.