The following three items were on the agenda for the December 1, 2020, Skagit Audubon board meeting.
- Audubon Advocacy Day
On December 9th, join Audubon members from across Washington to meet (virtually) with legislators to advocate for birds and the places and policies they need. To sign up and receive more information: https://act.audubon.org/a/advocacy2020#:~:text=On%20December%209th%2C%20join%20Audubon,places%20they%20need%20to%20thrive. Among Audubon Washington’s priorities for the state legislative session which begins 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 seabirds, and adding planning for climate change to the Growth Management Act’s requirements.
- Better protection for Skagit County’s heronries
For the last 2 years, Skagit Land Trust has been winding through the process of requesting changes to the Critical Areas Ordinances (CAO) of Skagit County and the City of Anacortes to better protect large heronries. There are presently 3 heronries with over 20 nests to which the ordinance would apply. Two of these heronry sites are entirely in the county. One, the very large March Point heronry, is partially in the county and partially in Anacortes. It looks hopeful that the modification to the Anacortes CAO will receive City Council approval. As previously reported here, the county’s Planning Commission voted, with only one opposing vote, to reject the recommendation of the Planning & Development Services staff, which was similar to the original Land Trust proposal, and make no change to the inadequate protection of heronries in the Critical Areas Ordinance. The Planning Commission is advisory to the 3-person Board of Commissioners, who make the final decision on changes to the CAO. Skagit Audubon joined many other groups and individuals in sending letters and emails to the County Commissioners objecting to the process and conclusion of the Planning Commission. We urged the County Commissioners to adopt the CAO change proposed by the county planning staff.
On November 24th, the Board of Commissioners met with Planning & Development Services staff for a briefing on the 2019 docket of all proposed changes to the county’s Comprehensive Plan, including the CAO. The County Commissioners generally follow the Planning Commission’s recommendations, but in this instance things went differently. Commissioner Lisa Janicki referenced the many letters and emails received from the public about the heronry matter and moved to approve the staff recommendation to improve the protection of heronries rather than accepting the “no action” recommendation of the Planning Commission. Commissioner Janicki started the discussion by saying, “I am concerned about flat out denying the proposal. Doing nothing flies in the face of science and our responsibility to this species.” Commissioner Ron Wesen added that he didn’t feel right not doing anything to clarify the ordinance and bring it in line with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife recommendations (which match the staff recommendations). Commissioner Wesen joined Commissioner Janicki in giving verbal approval. County staff will next draft an ordinance to embody this change to the CAO. The last step will be for at least 2 County Commissioners, constituting a majority of the 3, to sign the ordinance. The recording of the work session/Zoom meeting is at https://skagit.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=8&clip_id=3479 starting at 1:06:15.
- WDFW alternatives for restoring estuarine wetlands at Farmed Island
Skagit Audubon President Jeff Osmundson represents Audubon on Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s advisory committee for this project. On November 12th Jeff held a Zoom session to give interested Audubon board members an overview of the 4 alternatives being considered and the process the committee has followed. The 268 acres of the Farmed Island (also known as the Island Unit of Skagit Wildlife Area and sometimes as Deepwater Island) sit in the Skagit River across from the boat launch at the Headquarters Unit (“Wylie” to birders.)
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is hosting an online open house tomorrow night (Wed 12/2; 6-8pm) to gather public feedback on potential restoration options at the Island Unit. At the meeting WDFW will provide a short presentation and give members of the public an opportunity to provide feedback. In order to attend the webinar, register in advance at: https://rossstrategic.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_VhgBSuDhToC0rPZaJZB8uw.
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 and details on how to comment are available at https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/habitat-recovery/nearshore/conservation/projects/island. Background information about the Island Unit is at https://wdfw.wa.gov/places-to-go/wildlife-areas/island-wildlife-area-unit.
The name “Farmed Island” refers to the crops planted there to attract waterfowl, making this a long-time 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 The advisory group website is https://wdfw.wa.gov/about/advisory/iuag.
More issues needing public comment
- Weigh in with your support for Greater Sage-Grouse up-listing in Washington State
This from Teri Anderson, Chapter Network Manager for Audubon Washington:
“As many of you are aware, Greater Sage-Grouse are in a perilous state here in Washington, with pre-fire estimates of just 770 individuals in Washington state. According to the WDFW 2020 status review, the estimated effective population size following the devastating fires in Douglas County and elsewhere is ~ 117 birds, with all three remaining populations being affected by fire. We are clearly at a pivotal point in sage grouse conservation in our state. Lend your support to the Department’s recommendation to up-list the species from Threatened to Endangered by submitting a comment letter via their public process.* Learn more here and submit your comments by email by December 30 to TandEpubliccom@dfw.wa.gov.”
December 17th is the deadline for comments on leasing the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drill for oil and gas. For information and submitting a comment go to https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/11/17/2020-25316/call-for-nominations-and-comments-for-the-coastal-plain-alaska-oil-and-gas-lease-sale?eType=EmailBlastContent&eId=e2c797ea-2463-4ec5-8672-af4a32cd643a
The battle to prevent fossil fuel development in this largest wild area in the United States has gone on for many years. Let’s all lend our voices in opposition to the needless opening of this wildlife refuge to extraction of yet more oil and gas when we should be focused on weaning ourselves from them. - - On a much brighter note, last week also brought news of the Army Corps of Engineers denying a key permit for the proposed Pebble Mine. This gigantic gold and copper mine would threaten the ecology of Bristol Bay and the watershed that feeds it and produces the world’s largest sockeye salmon run. Environmental groups, fishing organizations, local residents, and more have been fighting this mining proposal for years. With the denial of the Corps permit the proposal is probably finished, but the important next step is enacting permanent protection for Bristol Bay and the waters that feed into it.
Updates on issues Skagit Audubon is following
- Expanding Deception Pass State Park
In June of this year, Skagit Audubon sent a letter to the Washington State Parks Commission in support of a Recreation & Conservation Office grant to purchase 83 acres and add them to Deception Pass State Park. This is the largest piece of privately-owned undeveloped land remaining on Fidalgo Island. Audubon’s letter was quoted in a November 28th Skagit Valley Herald article about the proposed expansion to this busiest of all Washington State Parks. The project ranks 6 of 10 on the state’s Recreation & Conservation Office list. Next steps are the Governor’s approval and sufficient appropriated funds.
- Weakening implementation of the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), passed in 1918, protects over 1,000 bird species and is the most important legal protection for birds in the United States. In a legal opinion issued December 2017, the Administration abruptly reversed decades of government policy and practice, by both Democratic and Republican administrations, on the implementation and enforcement of the act. Since its passage, the MBTA has been interpreted to hold individuals and organizations responsible for both deliberate and inadvertent but preventable killing of the protected birds. Thus, BP was fined $100 million for the deaths of more than 100,000 seabirds when its oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico collapsed and burned in 2010. The MBTA is the reason Puget Sound Energy must take measures to help Trumpeter Swans wintering in Skagit Valley avoid colliding with power lines and to prevent raptors from electrocution when they perch atop power poles. Under the reinterpretation by the present administration, only deliberate killing of protected bird species would be covered under the act.
In August of this year, United States District Court Judge Valerie Caproni ruled that the legal opinion serving as the basis for the administration’s weakening of the MBTA did not meet the intent and letter of the law. She wrote that the policy, “runs counter to the purpose of the MBTA to protect migratory bird populations” and is “contrary to the plain meaning of the MBTA.” Nonetheless, the administration has pursued rulemaking, and on November 28th, the Associated Press reported that the administration had published notice in the Federal Register of its final revision of the rule implementing the MBTA, to take effect 30 days after publication. The process is laborious, but this new rule can be reversed. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to enshrine the old rule in law. In recent years, Skagit Audubon has signed group letters opposing this watering down of the MBTA and brought the subject up with Congressman Rick Larsen during a birding field trip at Wylie Slough in 2018. Restoring the effectiveness of the MBTA should be an important priority for Audubon in the year ahead. Read about the MBTA on the National Audubon website: https://www.audubon.org/news/the-migratory-bird-treaty-act-explained#:~:text=The%20Migratory%20Bird%20Treaty%20Act%20%28MBTA%29%2C%20signed%20into,has%20saved%20millions%2C%20if%20not%20billions%2C%20of%20birds.
- Protecting the Skagit River Headwaters
A year or more ago there was considerable publicity about the potential for a large mining development in British Columbia within the Skagit River watershed. In an area referred to as the Donut Hole, surrounded by E.C. Manning Provincial Park and Skagit Valley Provincial Park, Imperial Metals owns mineral rights to what the company claims to be a large copper deposit. There has been interest in the area by mining companies for the last century. When it looked as though there was about to be action towards actually developing a mine in this location, the prospect raised alarm among environmental groups in British Columbia and Washington State as well as among other entities in the U.S. with downstream interests. These range from Tribes including the Swinomish, Upper Skagit, and Sauk-Suiattle, municipalities such as Mount Vernon and Anacortes that draw water from the river, and conservation groups such as Washington Wild and National Parks Conservation Association because the Skagit flows through the National Park Service’s Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and the City of Seattle because of its hydropower facilities and obligation to manage for salmon in the Skagit River. There is a significant chance that mining the Donut Hole would result in toxic runoff to the Skagit. Public criticism of the start of logging in the Donut Hole in 2018 led to a temporary shutdown by the B.C. government. Some mining exploratory work began and continues. A coalition of groups in the U.S. and Canada including the above mentioned and more is planning next steps to hope to end the threat of mining in the Donut Hole once and for all. The Canada/U.S. Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission, several of whose U.S. members live in Skagit County, is and has long been centrally involved in seeking protected status for the Donut Hole. Skagit Audubon has added its name to conservation group letters opposing logging and mining in this area and will continue to do so wherever and whenever possible.
- The Navy’s request to train in state parks
See last month’s Conservation Notes for details about the Navy’s request to conduct special operations (SEAL) training in 29 state parks (scroll down at “Conservation Notes” under the Conservation tab on the Skagit Audubon website: www.skagitaudubon.org). At its November 19th meeting, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission discussed this request and mentioned the large volume of public comments the Commission has received opposing permitting what the Navy is requesting. The recording and minutes of the meeting and much background material is at https://parks.state.wa.us/1168/Navy-training-proposal. Skagit Audubon has submitted a comment letter expressing concern at the inadequacy of the environmental review and the mismatch between military training and the public purpose of the state parks. The Commission is still accepting written comments, which can be submitted via the website above. Do this before the Commission’s January 27 & 28 meeting, at which oral comments will be taken and the Commission will vote on the Navy’s request.
- New proposal for Marblemount rock quarry
See the November Conservation Notes for information about Cunningham Crushing’s application to the Department of Natural Resources for a permit to expand mining at the
Cascade Big Bear Mine near Marblemount. This is a different proposal at the same site as the proposal last year by Kiewit Infrastructure, which was later withdrawn. In each instance, Skagit Audubon submitted a detailed comment letter focusing particularly on the potential adverse effects on wildlife and the environment and the inadequacy of the environmental review. The comment period is now closed. You can read more about this issue at the website of a local group, the Skagit River Alliance, which formed last year in opposition to these types of proposals: www.skagitriveralliance.org.
- Two more Skagit County mining proposals
Lake Erie Sand and Gravel
On October 14th Skagit County Hearing Examiner Wick Dufford heard a request to expand gravel mining at the Lake Erie Pit on Fidalgo Island from 17.78 acres to approximately 53.5 acres allowing removal of approximately 60,000 tons of gravel per year for approximately 60 years (Special Use Permit Application PL16-0556). Dufford’s decision came out December 1st. Information and documents for this project can be found at www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/PlanningAndPermit/ERIEgravelmine.htm. (At this writing, the decision does not yet appear to be posted on the Hearing Examiner’s website or on that of Planning & Development Services.) The zoning for this site includes a Mineral Resource Overlay, which was enlarged in 2016 to encompass the area of mining contemplated by the present permit application. On January 4, 2019, Skagit County Planning & Development Services issued a Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance (MDNS), for the proposed enlarging of the mining area, meaning that there were not significant foreseeable impacts and the foreseeable lesser impacts could be mitigated in ways specified. The MDNS was not appealed, which eliminated any future opportunity to require an Environmental Impact Statement. Dufford found that there has been essentially no mining at the pit in recent years and, in the meanwhile, residential development of the surrounding area has increased. He ascribes the considerable opposition to allowing expansion of the mine to the changed neighborhood.
In his findings, Dufford writes, “28. Be this as it may, the question of the appropriate use of the site has been legislatively resolved by the approval of an enlarged Mineral Resources Overlay (MRO) which encompasses the area of the applicant’s mining proposal.” He further found that the applicant is likely correct about surface and groundwater flow, which was a point of contention, and that the increase in traffic would not be significant. “37. The local outcry about this project is essentially the expression of an opinion that the expansion of this mine conflicts with the character of the area. However, the adoption of the MRO around the mining site appears to foreclose this argument as a legal matter.” Despite the trouble the applicant has gone to, “38. The applicant’s testimony was that he has no immediate plans for significantly expanding the operation of the mine. He is elderly and said that the current application represents part of an attempt to get his affairs in order. He has no plans to sell the property.” In Conclusions of Law at 8.: “In particular, the activities, as conditioned, will not unduly intrude on residential uses; cause adverse effects on public health, safety and welfare; nor interfere with the character, landscape and lifestyle of the particular rural area. 9. Were the pit not already in existence, this would be a different case. The application is essentially concerned with the continuation of a long-time pre-existing use. The character of the particular rural area already includes this mine.” Dufford’s conditions for the permit include that there be no mining until the applicant has obtained a reclamation permit from the Department of Natural Resources (this is what Cunningham Crushing has applied for to expand its operation of the Cascade Big Bear Mine near Marblemount.) I believe the application to DNR will include an opportunity for public comment. Among Dufford’s conditions is also this: “11. This permit shall be void if the use is abandoned for more than a year.” From an Audubon perspective, the main impact from expansion of this mining operation would probably be the loss of the 30 or 40 acres of forest cover presently on the site.
Grip Road Mine
Concrete Nor’West’s proposal for a large gravel mining operation very close to the Samish River met widespread community opposition four years ago and is now being revisited by Skagit County Planning & Development Services following further studies. Central Samish Valley Neighbors, comprised of residents of the local area, has been working to oppose the gravel mine for several years. See their website for more information about the project and the community’s concerns, including the inadequate environmental review: https://Central Samish.wordpress.com. It may not be long before Examiner Dufford holds a hearing on the permit requested for developing this mine.
Environmental Priorities Coalition
Audubon Washington joins over 20 other environmental groups in pursuing 3 or 4 legislative priority during each session of the Washington State Legislature. The Coalition is managed under the umbrella of the Washington Environmental Council, on whose website you will be able to read about the priority bills for the 2021 session, which begins January 11. At this writing, the information for the 2021 session is not yet posted, but this is the place to check in the weeks ahead: https://wecprotects.org/environmental-priorities-coalition/. You can also sign up there for updates about the priorities and concise weekly bulletins tracking environmental legislation during the session.
Other Skagit Audubon conservation issues and activities
For additional information about some of the above 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.
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.