Loggers' revenge

The Endangered Species Act hits liberal Seattle.

REVENGE MAY FINALLY be here for the loggers of the Northwest. For years, they were viewed as Neanderthals by urban environmentalists who couldn't relate to rural concerns over federal protections for the spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act. Now, with last year's listing of Puget Sound Chinook as one of 14 endangered species of West Coast salmon and steelhead, the feds have for the first time brought the ESA to bear on the region's big cities, most notably Seattle. Consequently, it's this liberal enclave's turn to feel the sting of the legislation that is sometimes called the "pit bull of environmental laws," which in the rural Northwest has altered the uses of entire forests, and which in Seattle could conceivably obliterate swaths of the urban landscape to make way for restored salmon habitat.

George Kirkmire, a spokesperson for the Washington Contract Loggers Association, which represents individuals and companies for hire on timberlands, hazards that folks in the rural areas would likely say of Seattleites: "It serves them right." Rural residents, he says, "would probably like to see some of the urban population squirm a little."

Certainly, application of the ESA is testing Seattle's environmental principles as never before. And some people feel that the city is failing the test. At the least, Seattle's concern with economic impact and regulatory bureaucracy are an ironic echo of arguments formerly given little credence here when heard in the context of species listings in what was viewed as the sticks.

Seattle and other jurisdictions have been responding to the fish listings through a tri-county working group for King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. After a year and a half of negotiations, the group hopes to submit a proposed plan of action to the federal National Marine Fisheries Service by the end of next month. If the agency OKs the plan, the counties and their local jurisdictions will be allowed to regulate themselves rather than undergo federal micromanagement. Such local control, the feds hope, will obviate the bitter struggles that took place around the spotted owl listing.

But some bitter feeling is already in the air. "We believe that when it comes right down to it, there will be less impact on Seattle than on rural areas," says Dean Boyer, a spokesperson for the Washington Farm Bureau. "Already we see the cities saying that their waterways are already so degraded that buffers [next to urban rivers, lakes, streams and Puget Sound] don't make sense."

Indeed, a breakaway group within the tri-county forum—comprised of Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett—has put forward a special urban alternative to the "management zone" under consideration for everyone else. The cities want to opt out of the zone, or buffer, that would run along shorelines and add heightened restrictions on development, property improvements, and agricultural uses. The cities instead want to look at proposed developments on a case-by-case basis.

"We believe that you can't turn the city back into 1889 Seattle," explains Diana Gale, director of Seattle Public Utilities, a lead city agency in the salmon talks. More specifically, she worries that a management zone would mean creating a "huge regulatory bureaucracy" in Seattle. "If you can imagine all the people living up and down creeks, they'd have to get a permit for everything they did on their yard." Furthermore, she argues that the benefit would be questionable since few salmon are thought to use the city's creeks.

Instead, she contends that we could get "more bang for the buck" by restoring habitat in the upper reaches of rivers where salmon spawn, which are in rural areas. "We would be willing to invest money in the rural areas," she says. "We're not trying to transfer our problem to them. We're saying let's do what's best for fish."

That rings false to Eric Espenhorst, a policy associate for Friends of the Earth and the environmentalist community's point person in the tri-county negotiations. "The cities are anxious to export some of the salmon reclamation work to the rural areas," he says.

Espenhorst allows, "At first glance, [the rural areas] have fewer resource conflicts. It's easier to plant trees in a field than to move the University of Washington medical school [which is] right on the ship canal and [then] plant trees there." But he insists that dramatic actions like moving the med school are necessary.

Unlike creeks, the ship canal (as well as Lake Washington and the Duwamish River) is a crucial leg of salmon runs, channeling baby salmon to Puget Sound and taking adults back to their upstream spawning grounds. At the moment, there aren't enough trees along these waterways to provide shade and the cool water temperature that salmon need. "We are going to have to move something on the ship canal," Espenhorst says, "unless we're going to build a retractable roof over the ship canal and dump ice cubes into it."

MOVING THE MED SCHOOL is not on the city's agenda. If that's proved a disappointment to Espenhorst, so has the way the city has addressed the question of the Duwamish estuary. The place where the river meets the Sound, the estuary is where baby salmon transition from fresh- to salt-water animals. During this trying task, salmon require rest and food, both of which they used to get in ample supply on the thousands of acres of mud flats that originally made up the Duwamish estuary. Smolts take breathers by hanging out in the shallow water covering the flats and eat the mud critters they find there.

Landfill and development, from houses to port industries to Boeing, has reduced the estuary down to about 80 acres. Espenhorst believes we should be thinking about how many acres of mud flats to restore, but he says of the city: "There's been no movement on even trying to answer the question."

Judith Noble, the head of Duwamish planning for Seattle, doesn't hesitate when asked if the city is considering building relocation along the river on a major scale. "No, good heaven," she says, standing on a bit of the river's shoreline just south of downtown, not far from a storage facility filled with Lego-like stacks of ship containers. "This is the industrial heartland of the economy."

Later, driving past another piece of shoreline in the neighborhood of South Park, adjacent to West Seattle and home to a number of seniors taking advantage of the area's low housing costs, she explains that the city has had to make some hard policy decisions that don't always favor salmon. "Just as I'm not going to suggest that we take down Boeing, so I'm not going to suggest that we take down affordable housing."

Still, she says, "that doesn't mean we can't do other things." She shows off a half dozen projects that have already been accomplished on the Duwamish. Some are sizable, such as a 14-acre property in West Seattle known as Seaboard, after the lumber company that last inhabited it. Contaminated by years of industrial use, the land was considered unsuitable for further development. So the city purchased it and built a park designed for both people and salmon—mostly salmon. Past a handful of picnic benches, the park dips into an expanse of lowlands, which during high tide fills with water from a newly built channel into the river and provides resting grounds for salmon.

Noble concedes, however, "It's going to be hard to find other gigantic sights like this." Most projects therefore will probably be smaller in scale, like a mud flat about three-quarters of an acre big that was built on Port property vacated by its industrial tenant.

Even if Seattle were to make only minor tweaks to its shorelines, however, it wouldn't mean that the city would get away from the Endangered Species Act scot-free. Seattle and other cities, for instance, have a much greater burden than rural areas in dealing with storm water. All the water that runs off the countless hard surfaces in an urban environment, from roofs to driveways, has to be made cleaner and more salmon-friendly.

It's still an open question, moreover, whether the National Marine Fisheries Service will view Seattle's salmon proposals, as espoused in the tri-county plan, as tough enough. You can almost hear Brian Gorman, a spokesperson for the agency, frowning as he listens to the city's bang-for-the-buck theory emphasizing habitat restoration in rural areas. "I'm not sure that's a helpful approach," Gorman says. "Each of us needs to worry about our own responsibility."

And even if his agency rubber-stamped Seattle's suggestions, the city would still be vulnerable to citizen lawsuits. In the spotted owl wars, the courts probably caused more restrictions ultimately than federal agencies did. Friends of the Earth's Espenhorst already envisions having to "take the antisocial action of starting to file a lawsuit."

Still, Kirkmire of the Contract Loggers Association doesn't believe that your average Seattleite will ever feel the pain that rural denizens did when logging and mill operations scaled back or closed due to the spotted owl listing. "You're not going to lose your job, you're not going to have to relocate," he says. Maybe not, but Seattleites might be a little less quick to judgment now that the Endangered Species Act is no longer somebody else's problem.

 
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