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Watching birds, protecting habitat, connecting with nature

Conservation Notes - November 2020

Audubon Washington Virtual Advocacy Day 2020

On December 9th, join Audubon members from across Washington to meet (virtually) with legislators to advocate for birds and the places they need. To sign up and receive more information: https://act.audubon.org/a/advocacy2020#. Among Audubon Washington’s priorities for the state legislative session which will begin January 11, 2021, are maintaining funding for land-managing agencies, fully funding habitat restoration and acquisition programs, ensuring that fisheries management plans promote recovery of forage fish essential in the diets of many seabirds, and adding planning for climate change to the Growth Management Act’s      

requirements.

The following five items are on the agenda for the November 2nd Skagit Audubon board meeting:

  • Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition (WWRC) sign-on letter

Skagit Audubon has been asked to join other conservation organizations in signing a WWRC letter to Governor Inslee and leaders in the state House and Senate urging their support for the WWRC and the Recreation & Conservation Office’s (RCO) $140 million Capital Budget request for the Washington Wildlife & Recreation Program (WWRP). The state budget for the 2021-23 biennium will a major focus of the legislative session beginning January 11th in Olympia.

            The WWRC is a non-profit organization which supports the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP). The Recreation & Conservation Office (RCO) is the state agency which administers the WWRP. WWRC, the coalition, advocates for the program on behalf of the general public and conservation groups and of all the state and local parks departments, state land-managing agencies, and habitat protection organizations, such as land trusts, that compete for WWRP grants. This program is the mechanism Washington State uses to distribute federal Land & Water Conservation Fund monies within the state. Some (all?) of these federal funds have to be matched, and that is part of why it’s necessary for our state legislature to appropriate funds if Washington is to benefit from the Land & Water Conservation Fund. Local funds are also used to match some WWRP grants.

            You’ll recall that a few months ago, Congress passed and the President signed the Great American Outdoors Act. This act provides for a guaranteed annual funding level for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program over 50 years old but up until now dependent on annually authorized funding that rarely if ever came up to the legislatively allowed amount. The money comes from federal sale of offshore oil and gas leases, not from taxpayers. (The oddity of such a bill passing during the present administration is a result of a Colorado Senator (R) and a Montana Senator (R) fearing they would fail to get re-elected if they didn’t demonstrate to their constituencies that they support public lands.)

            On the coalition’s website (https://wildliferecreation.org/) you can find descriptions of projects WWRP has funded in Skagit County over the years. They include expanding state parks, constructing recreational facilities in city parks, buying farmland conservation easements, and more. Another part of the website describes how the Land and Water Conservation Fund has contributed to protecting lands in Washington managed by federal land managing agencies such as the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

            Of relevance to the Audubon mission, many WWRP grants protect wildlife habitat directly or indirectly. Some also enhance access to wildlife watching opportunities, including birding. Audubon has a long history of supporting the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program. 

            At the November 2, 2020, Skagit Audubon Board meeting, the board voted to add the chapter’s name to the WWRC letter. If you would like to add your name to this letter as an individual supporter, go to the WWRC website (https://wildliferecreation.org/) and find the link at the top of the page.

  • Letter re Navy’s request to train in state parks (vote needed)

The U.S. Navy’s 5-year permit to conduct “Special Operations Training” in 5 specific Washington State Parks expired May 1, 2020. On February 12, 2020, the Navy applied for permission to expand this use of state park lands to 29 parks. Read about this request and how to comment at https://parks.state.wa.us/1168/Navy-training-proposal. The decision will be made by the State Parks and Recreation Commission at a regularly scheduled meeting, not yet specified, later this year or early next year. You can read the Navy’s position on this request and its response to actual or anticipated criticism in a letter and presentation by Rear Admiral C.S. Gray, Commander, Navy Region Northwest at https://parks.state.wa.us/DocumentCenter/View/15170/Navy-Special-Operations---WA-State-Parks-Commission-letter-3-12-20.  Among the 29 parks where the Navy would like to conduct SEAL training are Cama Beach, Camano Island, Deception Pass, Fort Casey, Fort Ebey, Joseph Whidbey, South Whidbey, etc. The map on page 9 of the Environmental Assessment the Navy prepared in 2019 for the training program shows the locations (state parks, naval bases, etc.) where it would like to conduct the training (Environmental Assessment for Naval Special Operations Training in Western Washington State https://parks.state.wa.us/DocumentCenter/View/15033/Navy-Environmental-Assessment-FONSI).

            In the Navy’s estimation, there would be no significant environmental impact from the proposed activities. This request to use state parks, set aside for habitat preservation and the enjoyment of the general public, for military training should receive close scrutiny. Such parks as Deception Pass, which Skagit Audubon members know well, support a variety of birds and marine life as well as rare plants which could be impacted.

            During the November 2nd Skagit Audubon board meeting, the directors voted to approve a comment letter previously distributed for review which describes potential adverse impacts to seabirds, marine mammals, rare plants, and the experience of park visitors particularly in and near Deception Pass State Park. There is no announced deadline for public comments on the Navy’s proposal.

  • New proposal for Marblemount rock quarry

In 2019 the proposal by Kiewit Infrastructure to reopen and greatly expand a quarrying site (the Cascade Big Bear Mine) near Marblemount and the Skagit River met opposition from the local community as well as state and federal agencies because of many potential adverse impacts. The driving force behind the proposal was Kiewit’s bid to receive a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contract to provide jetty stone for the mouth of the Columbia River and elsewhere. Kiewit did not get the contract and withdrew its Marblemount proposal. Now the owners of the quarry (Cunningham Crushing) have requested a permit from the WA Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for a somewhat smaller scale, 20-year operation. Rock would be taken from the large talus slope at the base of the quarry’s cliff, and some would be reduced in size by blasting. There are similar concerns about adverse environmental impacts and there are additional concerns related to the instability of the fractured cliff now held in place by the talus. (The cliff is reported to be the site of an active peregrine nest.) DNR’s original request for public comment ran for 2 weeks and, apparently, very few people or organization were notified. The notification omitted details of location that would have caught the notice of most interested people (e.g. no mention of Marblemount, the nearest community, or of the mine’s name). Public outcry has caused DNR to reopen public comment until November 12th. Information about the proposal can be found at  https://www.dnr.wa.gov/mineral-resources Contact Tim Manns at conservation@skagitaudubon.org for additional information. The Skagit Audubon board will be reviewing a draft comment letter.

            On October 21, 2020, a Skagit Valley Herald article described this mining proposal and two others in Skagit County: the expansion of a gravel quarry on Fidalgo Island along Rosario Road south of Anacortes and development of a large gravel quarry close to the Samish River northwest of Sedro-Woolley. Skagit County Planning & Development Services recommended approval of the Lake Erie Pit proposal some time ago. Recently, there was a hearing on the proposal before the county’s Hearing Commissioner Wick Dufford, whose decision will determine whether the project can proceed. Concrete Nor’West’s proposal for a large gravel mining operation near the Samish River met widespread community opposition two years ago and is now being revisited by Skagit County Planning & Development Services following further studies. (Link to the Herald article: https://www.goskagit.com/news/business/residents-push-back-against-mining-proposals/article_3cd29cdc-2c09-50d1-acbf-8158c036eca9.html)

  • Puget Sound Conservation Blueprint update

Several months ago Skagit Audubon board members participated in a Zoom meeting with Audubon Washington staff to hear about a new initiative of the state office in cooperation with National Audubon. Audubon used a range of data sets to identify the most important places for bird conservation in estuarine areas around Puget Sound. Two habitat restoration projects have now been chosen which are already in the planning stages by organizations focused on salmon. Audubon will work with them to further outcomes that will also benefit birds. One of the chosen projects is at the Eld/Totten Inlets at Puget Sound’s southern end. The other is in the Stillaguamish River Estuary, where the Stillaguamish Tribe and partners plan to restore estuarine habitat adjacent to The Nature Conservancy’s Port Susan Bay Preserve near Stanwood in Snohomish County. Pilchuck Audubon is the chapter for that area, but given Skagit Audubon’s long involvement with the Port Susan Bay Preserve, the Stanwood Snow Goose Festival, Leque Island project, etc., our chapter is also involved in the discussions. or more information, contact Tim Manns (conservation@skagitaudubon.org) or Audubon Washington Director of Bird Conservation Dr. Trina Bayard (Trina.Bayard@audubon.org)

  • Deepwater Island estuarine wetland restoration (WDFW)

A public comment period will be opening soon for estuarine wetland restoration alternatives on Deepwater Island, the “Island Unit” of Skagit Wildlife Area. It would be beneficial for WDFW to hear from a wide range of people in addition to waterfowl hunters, at least some of whom would prefer not to see estuarine habitat restoration take place in this popular hunting area. Restoration of habitat where salmon rear before going out to sea is essential to salmon recovery with benefits for critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales and many other species. Information is available at https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/habitat-recovery/nearshore/conservation/projects/island.

            Background from the September 2020 Conservation Notes: Formerly known as Deepwater Island, these 268 acres of Skagit Wildlife Area across from the boat launch at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) headquarters unit on Fir Island (“Wylie Slough” to birders) is the subject of a study of alternatives for estuarine habitat restoration. Skagit Audubon’s Chapter President, Jeff Osmundson, represents Skagit Audubon on WDFW’s stakeholder advisory group for the project. The Island Unit is located on two diked islands in a tidally-influenced reach of the South Fork Skagit River. WDFW has owned and managed the Island Unit since the 1950s to create winter forage for over-wintering ducks and geese. The site is sometimes referred to as the "farmed island" for the crops planted to attract waterfowl, and it has long been a favorite spot for waterfowl hunters. As the agency website explains, “WDFW is assessing land management of the Island Unit to best respond to aging dikes on the site, anticipated sea level rise, and changing habitat needs. The Island Unit is a priority area to restore habitat for salmon because it was historically a tidally-influenced estuary that provided critical rearing habitat for juvenile chinook salmon.” Read more at https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/habitat-recovery/nearshore/conservation/projects/island. The advisory group website is https://wdfw.wa.gov/about/advisory/iuag.

 

 

Other Skagit Audubon conservation issues and  activities

For additional information about some of the following issues and others, on the Skagit Audubon website (https://www.skagitaudubon.org/) go to the Conservation tab, then to Conservation Notes and scroll down to earlier editions.

  • Removing the Roadless Rule from the Tongass National Forest

Over the last several years, Skagit Audubon has joined many conservation groups in signing letters opposing the federal Administration’s proposal to exempt Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule. This administrative rule, issued by President Bill Clinton's administration as a national guideline in January 2001 with widespread public support, ended virtually all logging, road building and development in America's wildest remaining national forests. The Rule protects habitat for a wide array of species and supports recreational activity for millions of people. It also helps stop the growth of a logging road network which the U.S. Forest Service cannot afford to maintain.

            At 16.7 million acres, the Tongass National Forest is the largest in the National Forest System. It is the most extensive temperate rainforest in the world and besides being an immense carbon sink essential at a time of burgeoning climate crisis, is home to many rare, threatened, and endangered species. The Administration’s recent decision, despite widespread public opposition, removes protection of the Roadless Rule from the 9.4 million acres of the Tongass to which the Rule applied. There is concern that this is just the beginning of undoing the Roadless Rule across the U.S., including on the 2 million acres of Washington State where it applies. As an administrative entity, the Roadless Rule is fairly easily modified. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell is working to advance legislation to embody the Roadless Rule in law to provide greater stability. It is likely that several environmental groups will sue the Administration to prevent taking Roadless Rule protection away from the Tongass. 

 

  • Monitoring and protecting local sites important for birds

American Bitterns: During the past summer, Skagit Audubon worked with Skagit County Parks & Recreation to protect the nesting activity of multiple American Bittern pairs in one of the county parks. While bitterns generally nest in wetlands, they will also use grassy fields, as was the case in a particular county park. A member of the public alerted Skagit Audubon to the fact that bitterns were using the field for breeding, and County Parks readily agreed to hold off on mowing the field to avoid injuring the birds. A survey found evidence of at least 3 nesting pairs.

Great Blue Herons: The long-delayed decision by the Skagit County Board of Commissioners on whether to accept Planning & Development Services’ staff recommendation on improving the protection of heronries in the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance, or to accept the Take-No-Action recommendation of the Planning Commission, has yet to take place. The Planning Commission turned this matter into a heated political issue when a majority voted to censure the one Planning Commissioner who voted to improve heronry protections and elaborated his dissent in a letter. The particular Planning Commissioner is a candidate for County Commissioner.

Vaux’s Swifts: Migrating Vaux’s Swifts passed through our area earlier than usual in late summer, and none were observed using the migrating roosts/chimneys in downtown Sedro-Woolley during several Fall surveys. There were also no reports of the swifts returning to using the tall stack at the former Northern State Hospital, now renamed the Sedro-Woolley Innovation For Tomorrow Center (SWIFT!). For an update on the status of Vaux’s Swifts and their roost sites, watch Larry Schwitter’s recent program for Pilchuck Audubon: https://www.pilchuckaudubon.org/save-our-swifts (scroll to and click on “Watch the Recording.”)

Issues needing action:   

Some of the best ways for Audubon members to be advocates for the protection of birds and other wildlife and their habitat are to receive and act on action alerts from Washington Audubon and National Audubon. Sign up for Washington Audubon’s Action Network at https://act.audubon.org/onlineactions/JGKjknsVTUKMSr4BoP2Nvw2. Recognizing that climate change poses the greatest of all threats to birds, Audubon Washington is especially focused on advancing policies and laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Find and participate in National Audubon’s current issue campaigns at https://www.audubon.org/takeaction. Sign up there to receive alerts.

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Skagit Audubon Society holds monthly meetings on the second Tuesday of each month except for the months of July and August. We meet at 7:00 pm at Padilla Bay Interpretive Center(Google map), 10441 Bayview-Edison Rd. Mount Vernon. Meetings are open to all.

The board of directors meets at the same location at 7:00 pm on the first Tuesday of each month, except for the months of July and August.