By: King County Executive Dow Constantine
The fate of wild Pacific Northwest salmon may hang on an upcoming decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
That’s why I joined with other local leaders to urge the justices to come down on the side of northwest tribes in their legal fight against the state of Washington.
I believe we have a moral obligation to the region’s original residents, and even to those of us who occupy their ancestral lands, to restore what has been lost and leave a legacy of healthy salmon runs for all who come after us.
Here’s the back story: In United States of America v. State of Washington, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the federal government and 21 tribes, ruling that the culverts and pipes that impede fish passage must be replaced. The state objected and petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review, concerned about legal precedent and, understandably, the cost of upgrading hundreds of culverts.
But it’s not just the state. County roads and trails, and roads in our cities, have culverts, and many of those culverts likely impair fish passage. Naturally, local governments such as King County are concerned about cost, too.
Loss of salmon habitat is not a legal problem. It’s a real world problem. Our job is to fix problems. To square up to responsibility, not shirk it. Even if the state were to win an absolute victory in court over the tribes and the federal government, our obligation would be no less. We can’t simply stand by and watch as wild salmon dwindle into extinction.
We know what causes the problem, we know how to design better waterways, and remove man-made barriers to the salmon’s journey. We can determine what resources are needed, marshal our assets, and get it done. We can make a difference to the future of these iconic species that mean so much to our economy, our culture, and our way of life.
Problems are rarely intractable when you work with partners. The notion that the government would be liable to fix everything, immediately, no matter what the practicality or obstacles, fails to recognize the strong connections between tribes, environmental scientists and activists, and local government, all of whom are focused on common sense solutions.
We have done this in the past, to dramatic effect. At Ebright Creek in the City of Sammamish, a private landowner replaced an 18-inch culvert under his driveway that had blocked fish for 50 years. Access to the best remaining spawning habitat in the watershed was restored, and the salmon came home. A public-private-tribal partnership is doing the same thing on Zackuse Creek next year.
The Pacific Northwest is a place of water. From our snow-capped mountains, glacier melt forms streams and rivers that fan out across the plains. These lowland waterways are now crisscrossed by roads and bridges. That is the price of population growth and what our society recognizes as prosperity.
Salmon in their streams are our canaries in a coal mine. Their fate is intertwined with ours. The Pacific Northwest with dead rivers and empty bays, with salmon groomed only in pens, would be a sad testament to our collective selfishness and shortsightedness.
For this region’s Native tribes, the salmon are much more than a source of food or income. When the treaties were signed and a way of life cast into the mists of history, salmon were singled out as special, and sacred. For all that they relinquished to the U.S. government, tribal leaders reserved for their people “the right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”
Treaty tribes and state government are co-managers of the Washington’s salmon population. Good co-managers should work through differences in pursuit of the common goal of salmon recovery.
I believe partnerships are better at solving problems than litigation. Nonetheless, I will do whatever it takes to reduce fish barriers and ensure the survival of our Chinook, kokanee, steelhead and Coho.
We need to act as if the last sands of the hourglass were falling on our time with these amazing animals, because unless we do something now, they are.