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Is Puget Sound in peril?

An alluring mix of beauty and business is putting the squeeze on the nation's largest estuary.

Beauty is the Puget Sound basin's blessing - and its curse. With a mosaic of forest, mountain, harbor, and skyscraper almost too alluring for its own good, the region today is recoiling from a mix of logging and development that's brought its greatest environmental transformation since the Ice Age.

Meanwhile, the region's forest industry is reeling from a challenge to traditional clear-cutting. Trees remain the basin's biggest crop, even though the total annual harvest in western Washington has dropped about a third over the last decade. That forestry turmoil has resulted in land exchanges, ownership changes, and new crops and technologies.

Environmentally, this is still good news. Pollution control, growth management, land preservation, and new forestry techniques give the Puget Sound basin a fighting chance.

The bad news: population. The basin's grows by 50,000 to 70,000 each year. Where does Puget Sound proper begin and end? For these purposes, the broader basin extends nearly 200 miles from the state capital of Olympia at the Sound's southern end to the Canadian border, including the archipelago of the San Juan Islands. The waterway is named for Peter Puget, a lieutenant of British explorer George Vancouver who charted the area in 1792. Population grew with the transcontinental railroad, which arrived in the 1880s.

Covering about 16,000 square miles, this basin is part of a Pacific Northwest green trough of lowlands that extend from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Eugene, Oregon. Moist, moderate in climate, and with strong trading ties to Asia, development in this corridor has exploded since World War II.

Tumultuous change is nothing new to Puget Sound, which is bounded by the Olympic Mountains to the west and Cascade Mountains to the east. Fourteen thousand years ago the inland sea was covered by an Ice Age glacier up to a mile thick, gouging out the future Sound to depths as much as 900 feet. The intricate mosaic of islands, peninsulas, and bays that resulted boast a combined shoreline of 2,000 miles.

When the glaciers retreated and the sea invaded to form Puget Sound, the surrounding vegetation took over, climaxing into a coniferous forest of titanic and intimidating dimensions. Pioneers found a dark, glorious, and almost impenetrable temperate jungle, thick groves of trees that soared more than 200 feet, with trunks so thick early homesteaders made cabins of their hollow stumps.

Their impressive statistics - some were more than 1,000 years old - belied an unstable landscape. Mount St. Helens' 1980 blast blew away 150,000 acres of forest. Earthquakes from past centuries spilled forest groves into Seattle's Lake Washington, uplifted nearby Bainbridge Island, and sent tsunami waves roaring across Puget Sound. Mudslides from Mount Rainier stretched for 30 miles, reaching tidewater at Tacoma - future site of Seattle's industrial suburbs.

Forest fires from centuries past left their mark, scorching much of western Washington and setting the stage for the domination of Douglas-fir that drew timber tycoons to the Pacific Northwest.

These natural disturbances have been dwarfed by human change. In the past 100 years the biggest trees have been cut, rivers dammed, fish runs imperiled, wetlands filled, fields plowed, and roads paved. This has resulted in two historic transformations.

The first requires a look to the past: removal of most of the basin's old-growth forest, timber now called "late-successional" by forest managers. Starting at the shores of Puget Sound, loggers cut their way toward the crest of the surrounding mountains. They left in their wake 5,000 miles of logging roads in Olympic and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie national forests alone. That's enough roadway to reach across the U.S. twice.

More than three-quarters of Olympic National Forest's old-growth is gone, as is two-thirds in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie. Virtually all the old-growth has been harvested on the private and state land that makes up 74 percent of the Puget Sound basin.

The ghosts of these great trees rise from huge stumps notched with springboard holes where loggers once balanced. On private and state land, the new forest is businesslike tree farms of Douglas-fir, hemlock, cedar, and alder. Unlike their predecessors, these trees may stand for as little as 40 years.

Thirty years ago a single trunk could fill a logging truck. Those days are no more. Today's harvested trees are matchsticks in comparison.

Federal land makes up 26 percent of the Puget Sound basin, most of what's left of the old-growth protected after the fierce battles that swirled around protection of the northern spotted owl. Only about 8 percent of the 632,324 acre Olympic National Forest and 11 percent of the 1.7 million acre Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest remain open to logging, with any harvest confined largely to second-growth or salvage of burned or wind-toppled trees.

In those two forests logging has plummeted nearly 98 percent from its peak of 400 million board-feet each year in the 1970s and 1980s. The cut during 1997 was just 10 million board-feet in the Olympic and 8 million in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie. The number of full-time federal employees in the latter forest has dropped from 550 in 1981 to 185 today, concentrating on recreation, maintenance, and biological evaluation.

For decades, the U.S. Forest Service had as its mission in the basin to liquidate "decadent" old-growth with younger, faster-growing trees. "Now we're trying to recreate old-growth type systems," said Mount Baker-Sooqualmie spokesman Ron DeHart.

The reversal has the agency dizzy with change.

The second change we humans have brought: urban residents who demand a stop to old-growth logging. Their arrival is creating an even more dramatic environmental change. In the past century, the Puget Sound basin's population has jumped more than 10 times. Total residents now: 3.5 million people.

The world's biggest aerospace company, Boeing, and largest software company, Microsoft, sprawl across Seattle suburbs that in living memory were little more than trees. According to a recent study of satellite imagery by AMERICAN FORESTS, the proportion of "heavily forested land" (acreage where trees cover more than half of the land) in that part of the Puget Sound basin fell 37 percent in just 24 years: suburbanization of 600,000 acres.

The struggle between maintaining the forest character of "The Evergreen State" and accommodating growth has created constant, grinding, political warfare.

In principle, planners and politicians agree urban growth should be concentrated in existing communities along the shores of Puget Sound. That preserves as much farm- and forestland as possible. But intense development pressures have Washington struggling to rein in sprawl and doing it less successfully than its neighbor to the south, Oregon, which has less than half the population density.

Prime farmland has always been rare in the gravel hills of the Puget Sound basin. It's found mostly in the valleys of rivers that descend from the Cascades. Developers also covet this rare flat land, which means viable agriculture is largely gone from the Puyallup Valley adjacent to Tacoma and the Auburn valley near Seattle. It is under siege elsewhere. The rural Skagit Valley, 70 miles north of Seattle, has seen more than a third of its farmland disappear in just two decades.

Rivers such as the Skagit and Nisqually have been dammed, while the Puyallup and Green run a gauntlet of industrial pollution only recently being cleaned up. Urban bays are still healing from abuse that did not begin to end until the 1970s. Human-caused pollution has forced the temporary closure of 30 commercial shellfish beds.

The consequences of all this to wildlife are enormous but imperfectly understood. Species that require a large acreage of old-growth, such as the Northern spotted owl, are clearly in trouble. Animals that adapt well to human encroachment - such as raccoons, crows and coyotes - are thriving.

Newly protected animals - such as bald eagles, gray and killer whales, marine mammals, and cougars - are making comebacks from their nadir in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet all species are suffering from loss of habitat. The Puget Sound basin has also lost much of its green "sponge" that conserved snowpack, moderated flodding, and shaded terrain.

When clearcutting expanded. it created more brushy clearings where animals could browse. The deer population exploded, peaking at about 500,000 in Washington in the 1960s. Urban growth and improved reforestation have pushed the numbers down about 20 percent, wildlife biologists estimate.

The prairie fires Indians once set in southern Puget Sound have been suppressed, leading to the encroachment of forest on grasslands and oak savannas. Ironically, some threatened species have actually been helped by artillery practice at Fort Lewis near Tacoma that periodically ignites prairie fires.

The most devastating loss comes in the basin's once-enormous salmon steelhead runs. These ocean fish, which spawn in freshwater streams, have had their habitat sharply reduced by damming, logging that dumps silt onto gravel spawning beds, agriculture, development, and pollution.

The Puget Sound has lost some 73 percent of its river delta wetlands and 33 percent of its eel grass beds that are fish nurseries. Upstream the basin loses 500 to 1,000 acres of freshwater wetlands and 30,000 acres of fish-supporting habitat such as forests per year, Washington state estimates.

No surprise then that the basin's commercial salmon fishery has largely collapsed. Sports fishermen who have switched from salmon to other saltwater bottom fish have caused alarming declines in those species as well.

If Gertrude Stein could say of Oakland that there is no there there, long-time residents of the Puget Sound basin fear there is no here here anymore: that a unique landscape ("God's Country: Please Keep Out" Atlantic Magazine once wryly headlined) has been replaced by a dreary clone of the cul-de-sac subdivisions, office park islands, and car-choked commercial strips found everywhere in America.

So, what to do?

The Puget Sound basin's geography itself suggests a solution. The crest of the Olympics and Cascades are already preserved as federal parks, wilderness areas, and old-growth reserves. The Sound forms another natural barrier to development. The rivers that connect mountain refuge with saltwater could, if properly managed, serve as wildlife and ecosystem corridors. Urban sprawl could be confined between foothills and tidewater and broken up by riparian zones, preserved farmland, small parks, and working industrial forests.

This is already happening in piecemeal fashion. East of Seattle, activists are well along in acquiring a "Mountains-toSound Greenway" that preserves a corridor of forest along Interstate 90 from the suburbs to the crest of Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade Mountains.

Cities are backing away from routine logging of their watersheds. The city of Anacortes is considering a plan to let individuals or groups buy harvesting rights on the urban forest at its backdoor for $1,000 an acre, thus preserving the trees forever.

Government is seeking to direct sprawl to the most logical plateaus and increase population density in existing cities. Land trusts are obtaining easement rights from rural forest owners wire don't want their property cut anymore. Some counties have bought development rights to preserve farmland.

The timber industry is experimenting with smaller clearcuts or harvest plans that leave trees to protect stream corridors or wildlife habitat. A series of land exchanges to end checkerboard ownerships, supported by most environmentalists, is putting some of the most visible forests back in public hands.

The question remains: Is this too little, too late? Housing prices have roughly doubled in 15 years and builders are clamoring for affordable land. Seattle traffic is gridlocked. Deception Pass State Park, a two-hour drive from Seattle, gots more traffic than Grand Canyon National Park

The saving grace may be newcomers' firsthand knowledge of what hasn't worked elsewhere. The last few decades have shown that the environment can be not just preserved, but cleaned, improved, and allowed to recover - if given a chance.

That chance still exists in a basin that explorer Vancouver termed "the most lovely country that can be imagined."


Hundreds of volunteers planted 13,000 native trees and shrubs along the banks of the Sammamish River in King County on October 24, putting muscle behind that day's launch of AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf for the Puget Sound campaign.

The planting followed ceremonies announcing an initial 25 projects to be

planted in cooperation with partners including specialty retailer Eddie Bauer, King County, the city of Bellevue, the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, and the U.S. Forest Service.

The projects - from plantings in urban parks to logging road restoration to streamside salmon enhancement-will clean air and water, improve fish and wildlife habitat, and provide recreational opportunities.

Global ReLeaf for the Puget Sound is a call to action in response to dramatic tree loss. Last summer AMERICAN FORESTS conducted a Regional Ecosystem Analysis using satellite images and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software. The analysis found that areas with high vegetation and tree canopy coverage declined by 37 percent between 1972 and 1996. During the same 24-year period, the amount of land with very low tree cover more than doubled from 25 to 57 percent in the study area. The analysis energized local tree-planting efforts.

"The actions we take today are an important first step - not just for King County, the salmon, and the Puget Sound - but because they exemplify the importance of building partnerships," said King County executive Ron Sims.

In conjunction with the Global ReLeaf campaign, urban foresters, planners, landscape architects, citizen activists, and business and government leaders are preparing for Building Cities of Green, AMERICAN FORESTS' biennial National Urban Forest Conference. That conference, to be held in Seattle from August 31 to September 3, 1999, will spotlight the region as a national lab to study the effects of urban growth on local ecology and search for ways to incorporate trees and forests in the urban landscape.


As land restoration and maintenance grow ever more vital a wealth of new and innovative approaches are being proposed to protect and maintain America's forests. The source: the rural and urban communities that surround those forests.

Federal and state governments, in partnership with community-based organizations and local workers, are retraining displaced forest workers for high-skill, year-round jobs. Programs like the federal Jobs in the Woods and Washington state's Jobs in the Environment Program are teaching watershed analysis and planning, road maintenance and obliteration, tree planting, erosion control and revegetation, fuels reduction, and a host of other skills.

The programs seek to give workers year-round skills- and to nurture a workforce that is connected with communities, creating stable, long-term jobs that support families as well as protect the environment.

While not new, such education provides a broader range of skills and practices than currently exist for other woodsrelated jobs such as forest technician or forester. But the biggest hurdle for both the public and private sector will be creating jobs that focus on restoration and maintenance of forest ecosystems. To assist that process the U.S. Department of Labor recently created a new job classification for "ecosystem management workers."

Forest workers traditionally focused on timber production; today they've caring for the land and the rivers, working to clean water and air and revitalize fish and wildlife habitat. Any timber harvesting is now based on sustainable forestry principles.

AMERICAN FORESTS believes a highly skilled workforce can contribute to both urban and rural forest restoration, and it supports programs and policies that stimulate this transition and encourage investment in ecosystem protection. Making public investments to stimulate an ecosystem-based industry is an essential part of caring for the land - and its people.

- Maia Enzer

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Dietrich wrote The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest. His first novel, Ice Reich, was published this fall.
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Title Annotation:environmental change
Author:Dietrich, William
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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