More spending: Locke announces plan to improve Puget Sound
BY JOHN DODGE, THE OLYMPIAN
"I'm concerned about the future of marine life in Puget Sound," the governor said, using his weekly press conference to draw attention to Puget Sound.
The governor's Puget Sound agenda includes:
* Authorizing $90,000 from his emergency fund to increase the state's role in work by NOAA Fisheries to develop a recovery plan for the Puget Sound orca population, which has dropped from 97 animals in 1996 to 82 today.
* Asking the state Legislature to approve $1.4 million in funding for a rescue tug at Neah Bay to prevent oil spills from tankers and ships that flounder at sea.
* Providing $400,000 in his Puget Sound budget for studies on marine bird populations, some of which have declined 90 percent in recent years.
* Calling on the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to complete recovery plans by 2004 for Puget Sound groundfish and rockfish, which are in serious decline.
* Naming Brad Ack, former senior program manager for the Grand Canyon Trust, as the new chairman of Puget Sound Action Team, an intergovernmental body that oversees Puget Sound cleanup and protection from within the governor's office.
The governor has submitted a $30.9 million budget to the state Legislature for Puget Sound work in the 2003-05 biennium, which is a $1.5 million boost from the current biennium.
Taken collectively, the governor's actions are encouraging, said Bruce Wishart, lobbyist for People for Puget Sound, a conservation group.
"I think the governor has made a renewed commitment to Puget Sound," Wishart said. "It couldn't have come at a better time with the Puget Sound ecosystem in decline, if not collapse."
"We aggressively need to do this - time is running out," state Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Jeff Koenings said of the various conservation plans for marine species.
Actions to protect bottom-dwelling fish could include creation of marine sanctuaries and reduced fishing on certain species, he said.
Locke also said the time is now for a permanent solution for better protecting Puget Sound against oil spills.
Funding for the Neah Bay rescue tug has been seasonal and year-to-year without certainty.
Randy Ray, lobbyist for the Puget Sound Steamship Operators, said the shipping industry is willing to work with the governor and Legislature, but doesn't like the tug location fixed at Neah Bay at the west end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
"Accidents don't come pre-planned in one spot," he said. "We need to place tugs in various places like a fire department places its fire trucks."
The steamship operators have been obstructionists in the bid to create a comprehensive oil spill prevention plan for Puget Sound, Wishart said.
"We've bent over backward to work with them for 10 years. Their proposals lack merit."
Ack, who fills an 11-month Puget Sound Action Team chairman vacancy, comes to the state with 17 years' experience in Washington, D.C., Latin America and the American West, working on conservation and sustainable development.
He spent five years with the World Wildlife Fund and the past 10 with the Grand Canyon Trust, a regional conservation group working on land-use and natural resource issues on the Colorado Plateau.
He said his biggest challenge will be trying to figure out ways to protect the Puget Sound environment in the face of rapid urban growth.
It's the same challenge that launched state efforts to protect Puget Sound 18 years ago with formation of the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, which was later folded into the governor's office as the action team.
He suggested the plight of the orca whale, the icon species in Puget Sound, could be used to broaden public support for Puget Sound cleanup.
"If you protect the top of the food chain, you protect species all up and down the chain," he said.
John Dodge covers the environment and energy for The Olympian. He
can be reached at 360-754-5444 and by e-mail at email@example.com.