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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Point of No Return, Part II: Salmon in the City

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood reports on Seattle’s battle over endangered salmon. For the first time in the history of the Endangered Species Act, entire urban areas have come under the aegis of the act as several salmon runs that pass through Seattle and neighboring Portland, Oregon have been added to the list of protected species. Some fear the outcome of an argument couched in terms of people vs. salmon.


CURWOOD: You're listening to Living on Earth.

WOMAN: There they are!

CHILD: (Gasps) Fish!

CHILD 2: Fish!

WOMAN: There, there's a whole school of them right there. See them?

CHILD 3: A baby fish!

CHILD 4: A big fish!

(A baby gurgles)

CURWOOD: Here, through special underwater windows at a public park in Seattle, people gaze, spellbound, at the annual migration of salmon. Every year more than a million tourists make their way to an ocean inlet at the Boward Locks to witness this wonder of nature.

CHILD 5: Look at that little guy!

WOMAN: And then, from right out here, they smell that freshwater...

CURWOOD: Tour guides tell the stories of how adolescent salmon, born in the mountains that surround Seattle, depart for the ocean past these locks. While salmon near the end of their lives return from the sea on their way to spawn at the very spot where they were hatched.

WOMAN: They can actually smell from right here the nutrients of the river stream where they were born. So they have an incredible sense of smell. and out of a thousand eggs only one makes it back this far. So, these are really the tough ones that have made it so far.

CURWOOD: This spectacle is one of Seattle's biggest attractions. When you visit New York, you go to Times Square or the Statue of Liberty. Here, you visit the fish.

(Children's voices exclaiming)

CURWOOD: So what's the fascination with the fish?

WOMAN 2: They're very beautiful to watch, and it's very difficult for them to swim against that current. It's very impressive.

CURWOOD: We're right in the middle of the city. Strikes me as unusual to have fish in the middle of the city. How about you?

WOMAN 3: Well, I just hope that we're doing all the right things to take care of them. They were here first, so I hope they stick around, and that we learn to live together.

CURWOOD: But many of the wild salmon runs that pass through urban areas of the Pacific Northwest have drastically declined. So recently, the federal government put these wild salmon on the Endangered Species List.


WOMAN 4: Only five minutes left before the next one-hour harbor tour is departing here at Pier 55...

CURWOOD: If you take a stroll down Seattle's waterfront, you'll be impressed with the crowds and the obvious financial success of many of the enterprises here.

(Gulls call)

CURWOOD: You'll also see why wild salmon are in trouble. Every inch of the shore seems to have been put to work for humans. Environmental activist Tom Geiger of the Washington Environmental Council recently gave us a tour.

GEIGER: Well, it is a beautiful waterfront, but as you look past you'll see a marina that's built, there's a whole jetty going out into the water that's built with all these stones that destroyed shoreline areas. And as you come closer, you see a hotel that's literally built out over the water, with pilings coming up. And then a concrete face running along the entire shoreline of the city of Seattle.

CURWOOD: Like many northwest cities, Seattle has plenty of spectacular wildlife habitat outside the city limits. But salmon require livable conditions along every part of their migratory route. And, says Mr. Geiger, the way the city has developed its oceanfront and rivers is highly hazardous to salmon.

GEIGER: You know, it's just threat after threat after threat that they have to swim through before they even get up to their spawning beds. It is really kind of a gauntlet, if you will, that the salmon have to run through to even get upstream.

CURWOOD: This gauntlet is presenting one of the biggest challenges ever for wildlife officials, and for residents of the Pacific Northwest. The recent listing of Chum, Chinook, and Sockeye salmon has brought entire metropolitan areas under the scrutiny of the Endangered Species Act. It's the first time that's happened. Previous endangered species battles have mostly been rural affairs involving a single industry. Loggers versus owls, for example, or ranchers versus wolves. But this time the fight includes Portland and Seattle, one of the nation's fastest-growing cities and home to three million people and corporate giants including Microsoft, Starbucks, and Boeing. Bob Turner's in charge of enforcing the Act for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

TURNER: We've had endangered species in urban environments before, but they've always been terrestrial wildlife, like butterflies or something where you can be confident that if you have an acre of land protected for that species, you're pretty sure it's going to survive within that habitat. Salmon are so different because their life cycle is so complex.

CURWOOD: Every river and stream is currently under evaluation for its impact on salmon. Soon, every construction project will come under strict review, too. Efforts to protect wild salmon may eventually involve any aspect of urban life that affects water quality, down to the fertilizers and pesticides people use on their lawns. But is it realistic to expect that salmon can live side by side with people in areas dramatically transformed by a century and a half of human settlement? Mr. Turner says yes.

TURNER: I don't have any doubt that they can coexist. I think we can certainly protect streams and water in urban environments in a way that can allow fish to survive. The question is, do we have the political will to do so?


MAN: So please welcome His Excellency, the Honorable Governor Gary Locke.

CURWOOD: Even before the endangered species designation, officials like Washington Governor Gary Locke recognized how much of the challenge lay ahead, and how high the stakes were.

LOCKE: Salmon recovery is about much more than fish. It's about respect for the natural world that sustains us. And if we fail to do what's necessary for salmon, we will fail at something far larger than saving fish. We will fail at saving the very quality of life that makes living in the Pacific Northwest unique and distinctive. In addition to...

CURWOOD: In his 1999 State of the State Address, Governor Locke warned local officials that if they don't act, the Northwest could come under the environmental equivalent of martial law.

LOCKE: If we fail to protect our wild salmon, the federal government will do it for us, and even to us. We will lose control over our land, our water, our farms, and our forests. We will not let that happen without a fight.


CURWOOD: This prospect of federal control has some people fighting mad, and one battleground is a familiar setting for environmental conflict: construction sites in the suburbs.

(Engines and earthmoving)

NYKREIM: Well, we're going to build three single-family homes. They're going to be about 2,600 square feet each, each with anywhere from a two- to a three-car garage...

CURWOOD: Homebuilder Mike Nykreim is a fourth-generation Seattle resident who develops vacant lots inside existing neighborhoods. Tall and trim, he's an outdoorsman and a mountain climber, who feels his projects don't harm the environment.

NYKREIM: We're not tearing down old growth trees by any stretch of the imagination. This is what's called infill development.

CURWOOD: And what's it going to cost? If I wanted to buy one of these when your done, I'd have to part with how much money?

NYKREIM: I'd be happy to sell it to you for $460,000. (Curwood whistles)


CURWOOD: Part of that cost is an elaborate drainage system Mr. Nykreim is required to build. It captures rainwater running off roofs and driveways and slowly releases it into the ground. This prevents many flash floods from scouring sensitive habitat in nearby streams.


CURWOOD: With a long metal crowbar, Mr. Nykreim pries the cover off a freshly-installed manhole.

(Echoing clanks)

NYKREIM: (Echoing) Hello!

(Water drips)

NYKREIM: It's 24 feet deep. There's this monstrous tank down there that's supposed to retain the stormwater from just three homes.

CURWOOD: This stormwater detention system is just one of a growing number of environmental precautions that developers have been forced to take by local regulators. But Mr. Nykreim feels builders are being pushed too far. He says environmental safeguards are making single-family homes too expensive. For example, this stormwater system will add about $20,000 to the price of each house it serves. And when you talk to him about doing more to save wild salmon passing through the city, Mr. Nykreim begins to bristle.

NYKREIM: I see this as some kind of eagletopia that somebody in Washington, D.C., would like to see the Pacific Northwest have to experiment around with. Come up with a nice little plan that we're going to do everything in the world, everything regardless of economics, to control the environment.

CURWOOD: This perception is based on the painful history of the Pacific Northwest with endangered species protection. The listing of the spotted owl years back decimated small logging towns. It even created its own mythology, of an inflexible federal government concerned more about animals than people. So people like Michael Nykreim worry what will happen now, with the listing of wild salmon runs that include metropolitan areas. He's so concerned, he says he's getting out of the homebuilding business.

NYKREIM: Now, I'm nobody's fool here. I'll watch ESA come into a community and devastate the community. And it's going to happen here. ESA is implemented here like it has been in other communities, it's going to crush this economy.

CURWOOD: This fear recently prompted builders to go to court to challenge the listing of salmon as endangered species. They filed suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, saying they're being unfairly targeted. Indeed, the salmon controversy is putting a number of lawyers to work. Environmental activists sued in the first place to get salmon listed. This battle over local or Federal control has some people wondering if the listing of salmon could push the Endangered Species Act itself into extinction.

SMITCH: This is really a fundamental, if not the fundamental test of the Endangered Species Act. I think it's huge stakes. I think this is probably a test case for the long-term survival of the Act.

CURWOOD: Kurt Smitch is the top salmon advisor to Washington Governor Gary Locke, and coordinates the current jockeying among Federal, state, and local officials. Dr. Smitch is worried the entire process could become a stalemate. That, he says, would provide ammunition to those who feel the Endangered Species Act is inflexible and in need of major reform. Even so, Dr. Smitch feels there's still time to find a compromise that could rescue salmon from extinction. And surprisingly, he welcomes the federal pressure on state and local authorities.

SMITCH: We need the federal government once in a while to come in when local political will simply can't take the pressure to do the right thing on behalf of public resources. We have had these problems before us for the last 20 years. We know we don't have enough clean water. We know we don't have enough water in this state for fish and people at the same time. However, if it weren't for the Endangered Species Act, we would not be addressing these issues. And that's the only reason we have a chance. If it weren't for that law, we would all sit here continuing to quack about the problems with salmon, and they would wink out.

CURWOOD: Despite this optimism about the politics of salmon recovery, one of the biggest questions remains unanswered. Can a sprawling metropolis really be made safe for wild salmon? To see how salmon really might survive in a highly industrialized environment, I strap on mud boots for a boat trip up Seattle's biggest river, the Duwamish. My guide is a youthful, energetic biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Curtis Tanner.

TANNER: After our ride, there's this one hill slope, and then about a mile, a mile and a half over to the east there, you can see the other hill slope. That is the boundaries of what was once the river valley. So you can imagine that we were once in a large river valley, that there was once a meandering channel, a lazy little river if you will, kind of going back and forth from valley wall to valley wall. About 12 miles in the lower stretch of the river here of meandering channel.

CURWOOD: How has it been shrunk, it's been straightened out like --

TANNER: It's been straightened out, so we basically took all the kinks out of the 12 miles of channel, took it down to about five miles of what they now call a navigable waterway. They deepened it, and they filled in the wetland to create industrial land.

CURWOOD: And not just any industrial land. This is the heart of Seattle's heavy industry. There are cement factories, a steel mill, ship yards, one of the West Coast's busiest ports, and the world's largest airplane manufacturer, Boeing. All of them generating billions of dollars in economic activity, in the wetlands where millions of salmon once thrived. The lower Duwamish isn't just any stretch of river, either. It's a vital salmon estuary, where the juveniles are supposed to fatten up before heading to sea. This is also where they make the critical transformation from a freshwater to a saltwater fish. That's why Curtis Tanner is here. The Duwamish uplands are still productive salmon habitat, but the estuary? It's a mess.

TANNER: To write off the estuary, in this case, is to write off an entire watershed. I don't think that we have the moral authority, if you will, to write off an entire watershed, much less the legal ability. The Endangered Species Act doesn't allow us to say well, we're going to write off that system and go, say, fish someplace else. We have a responsibility to save fish everywhere.

CURWOOD: Some say it's hopeless to spend limited resources on salmon in an industrialized river like this, but Mr. Tanner hopes to prove them wrong. He's pioneering an effort to restore these estuaries. Right now the project is focusing on reclaiming tiny scraps of abandoned industrial land.

(An engine slows down)

CURWOOD: Our boat begins to slow as we reach one of the pilot projects, a tiny patch of green beside a small tributary.

(To Tanner) This is like night and day. I mean, we're looking at something that looks reasonably natural. That could be someplace far, far away from the city.

TANNER: Yeah, you can. It's a little bit of an oasis here on the river.

(Slapping water)

CURWOOD: Instead of concrete, the river bank here is a natural mud flat. Instead of junked cars and abandoned boats, the shore is lush with tidal saltmarsh vegetation.

TANNER: This sedge that we're looking at here is, jeez, what would you say? Three, maybe four feet high?


TANNER: Looking pretty good. This is really the fuel of these kinds of habitats. It's this plant material that breaks down and becomes small little bits and pieces of detritus or decaying vegetation that really fuels the food web here in this system.

CURWOOD: In other words, this is salmon food.

TANNER: This is next year's crop of salmon food.


CURWOOD: It's taken four years and $300,000 of public money to restore this single acre of shoreline. But already, hundreds of salmon are using the site. One of more than a dozen postage stamp-sized projects created by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and local volunteers.

(Engine starts up)

CURWOOD: It's too early to tell how many salmon might be saved through projects like this, but biologist Curtis Tanner feels they're worth the effort. They demonstrate that urban restoration is possible, and they've fostered support for even bigger projects on streams in Seattle neighborhoods that flow into the Duwamish. Headed back down the river, Mr. Tanner explains that there is an intangible benefit from his work as well. Like Washington Governor Gary Locke, he feels that wildlife habitat can make the city livable.

TANNER: People do live and work down here. And I think it's important to provide green space in people's back yards. Just having some green in an otherwise urbanized area is very important.

CURWOOD: So the salmon might save people?

TANNER: Let's hope so.

CURWOOD: Biologist Curtis Tanner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of several agencies working to restore wild salmon runs in urban areas of the Pacific Northwest.



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