Skagit Audubon
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Watching birds, protecting habitat, connecting with nature

Conservation Notes - December 2021

The first five items below were on the agenda for the December 7, 2021, Skagit Audubon board meeting.

  1. Restoring the Roadless Rule on the Tongass National Forest

Washington Wild invited Skagit Audubon to sign a group letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack requesting full restoration of the 2001 Roadless Rule protections on the Tongass National Forest and ending all logging of old-growth in this southeast Alaska forest. At Skagit Audubon’s December 7th meeting, the board acknowledged the importance of protecting the Tongass National Forest and voted to sign this letter.

Late in its second term the Clinton Administration administratively approved the U.S. Forest Service 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule (Roadless Rule). This rule limits road construction on over 50 million acres of publicly owned National Forest lands for the sake of conservation and to avoid adding  to the many miles of forest roads already beyond the Forest Service’s ability to maintain. Repeated lawsuits attempting to undo this administrative policy have all failed. Nonetheless, the last administration was able to exempt from the Roadless Rule the approximately 9 million acres of the Tongass National Forest which had been protected from road building and logging since 2001. Efforts are now underway by numerous conservation and other groups to restore protection to those 9 million acres and also to ban all logging of old growth on the full 16.7 million acres of the Tongass (Note that some of the Tongass has already been logged). This is the largest forest in the National Forest system and the largest intact temperate rain forest in the world, sequestering a huge quantity of carbon, supporting a very significant percentage of the annual salmon harvest and a wide array of wildlife, and providing many other benefits.

In the past few years, Skagit Audubon has signed several group letters opposing exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule. Whenever this issue arises, there is concern that it could be the start of undoing the Roadless Rule everywhere, including on the approximately 2 million acres of National Forest lands which it protects in Washington State. The Roadless Rule is an important means of protecting wildlife habitat, a goal central to Audubon’s mission.

  1. Audubon Washington’s state legislative priorities

Audubon Washington has established its priorities for the legislative session which begins in Olympia on January 10th and will run 60 days. This is a “short” (non-budget writing) session. Audubon’s top three priorities are:

a. Ensuring Washington communities are prepared for a changing climate

This includes updating the Growth Management Act to require counties and cities in updating their comprehensive plans to address climate change (including sea level rise, emissions reduction, and more). HB 1099, which would legislate these updates, made some progress in the 2021 legislative session but did not pass. It has a chance in the 2022 session.

Also under this priority, Audubon calls for funding the Sustainable Farms and Fields bill passed in 2020 but without the money needed to provide the incentive grants to farmers to employ practices that sequester carbon in agricultural soils and reduce emissions from farm equipment. 

The third part of this priority is legislation to promote installation of solar energy equipment in developed areas (i.e. rooftops, parking lots, …), particularly community solar administered to make it possible for less wealthy individuals to benefit from solar energy. This approach to installing solar is as opposed to focusing most solar development in rural areas where siting can be problematic for farmland and native habitat.

Audubon Washington’s second legislative priority is:

b. Support Puget Sound recovery enhancing shoreline protection and restoration

The first part of this priority addresses the importance of forage fish to marine birds and salmon and, ultimately, the Southern Resident Killer Whales. It calls for improving the regulation and permitting of shoreline armoring by Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, as it is the hard armoring of shorelines that has so extensively destroyed the beach conditions forage fish need to spawn.

The second part of this priority calls for raising the ceiling on the annual levy increase allowed for the Conservation Future’s Program. This is the program whereby we pay a small county tax annually to fund purchase of conservation easements. In Skagit County, this takes the form of the Farmland Legacy Program, and all the revenue is used to purchase conservation easements on farmland (i.e. distinguishing development rights). With over 10,000 acres protected, it has been a very successful program in Skagit County, but unlike other counties, Skagit does not permit any of these funds to be used for conservation easements on wildlife habitat or for purchasing park land. The current legislated cap on increasing this levy is 1%  per year.

Audubon Washington’s third legislative priority is:

c. Protect Washington’s remaining shrub-steppe, home to iconic threatened and newly listed endangered bird species

Audubon Washington’s third priority focuses on issues around solar energy development east of the Cascades. There are proposals for 40 projects on over 54,000 acres, including much shrub-steppe habitat. Audubon asks that WDFW be more adequately staffed to evaluate the potential environmental effects of these projects so those can be minimized. Audubon also seeks to protect the funding in place for the least-conflict solar siting program which passed the legislature in 2021 but for which implementation funding will not be available until July 2022. The goal of this program is to identify the places where solar energy development can take place with the least conflict with wildlife and agriculture.

You can read more details about each of these priorities on the Audubon Washington website at: https://wa.audubon.org/sites/default/files/static_pages/attachments/audubon_2022_session_talking_points.pdf  You can also sign up to receive updates during the legislative session:  https://wa.audubon.org/conservation/legislative-session-2022 Bill numbers should be available soon for the bills being prepared on each of the above priorities. You can then go to the Washington Legislature’s web site to read the text of each bill, track its progress, and express your support or opposition during the upcoming session (https://leg.wa.gov).

  1. Carbon Capture Foundation tree-planting project

See the November conservation notes and the Conservation Report in the December Skagit Flyer for details about this program to provide free trees to landowners who will plant them to sequester carbon. To date, eight people with property varying in size from a town lot to several acres have expressed interest in participating. Contact Tim Manns (bctm@fidalgo.net). Delivery of the trees (all bare-root) will be some time after mid-January 2022.

 

  1. Campaign to oppose allowing Fully Contained Communities in Skagit County

See the last several issues of Conservation Notes for information about this issue which poses a very serious threat to Skagit County and its ability to support the present variety and quantity of birdlife as well as maintaining viable agriculture and forestry economies. By board vote, Skagit Audubon is listed among the organizations supporting the Right Growth Right Place campaign opposing changing the county’s planning policies to allow these large housing developments (FCCs) at urban density in rural areas. The campaign website (https://rightgrowthrightplace.org) describes ways to help, from circulating a petition asking the County Commissioners to reject the request to allow such developments to donating to cover expenses and provide legal representation in a possible appeal to the Growth Management Hearings Board.

Skagit County Planning & Development Services intends to proceed by taking about a year to have a contractor prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the potential effects of FCCs. This will be a “programmatic” EIS in that it will somehow evaluate these effects and describe alternatives without considering any particular FCC. This proposed change to the county’s comprehensive plan to allow FCCs was submitted by a developer (Bellingham-based Skagit Partners), who previously repeatedly sought permission to build a particular FCC, “Avalon,” by the golf course of that name north of Burlington.

The Skagit Land Trust website has concise information on this issue: https://www.skagitlandtrust.org/news.aspx?postid=6477. The Trust is another of the organizations joining Right Growth Right Place. The perspective and approach of the county planning department can be seen here: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/PlanningAndPermit/fullycontainedcommunities.htm.

Once the county planning department has chosen a contractor to write the EIS, the county will issue a “Determination of Significance” and the EIS process will begin with an invitation to the public to submit “scoping comments.” These are requests for what issues should be addressed and what alternatives considered as the EIS is developed. The scoping comment period will likely be 30 days, and Skagit Audubon will probably submit a comment letter.

 

  1. Skagit County Shoreline Master Program (SMP)

The county’s Planning Commission has completed its review of draft changes to the master program based on public comments and planning staff recommendations. It appears that there has been no change in the refusal to address sea level rise. This and other weaknesses in the plan will be the subject of a Skagit Audubon comment letter to the Board of County Commissioners. Once the commissioners have blessed the SMP, the document goes to the Department of Ecology (DOE) for that agency’s review and approval. As DOE has been reviewing the draft and commenting as it was being written it is unlikely there will be substantive changes. Current law does not require SMPs to address sea level rise, as relevant as it is to shoreline management. Proposed legislation may change this during the upcoming session in Olympia. The timing is such, though, that Skagit County would not have to address sea level rise in its SMP until the next update eight years hence.

Updates on other issues Skagit Audubon is following

 

Clean up of the March Point (Whitmarsh) dump

With almost 700 nests (2020 count), the March Point heronry is likely the largest on the west coast of the U.S. and certainly the largest in the Salish Sea region. Great Blue Heron expert Anne Eissinger refers to this heronry as the primary breeding center for this species around the Salish Sea and key to maintaining a healthy population. In previous conservation reports I’ve described the impending clean-up of the toxic waste site, called Whitmarsh or March Point Dump, which lies between the heronry and Padilla Bay. It is important that this clean up take place to stop the leaching of toxic materials into Padilla Bay, and Skagit Audubon commented to the Department of Ecology as planning went forward for this work. It is also very important that the clean-up be done in a way minimizing the potential to disturb the herons and cause them to abandon the heronry, as has happened at several other large heronries around the Salish Sea.

Over the last several decades Skagit Land Trust has acquired more and more of the area occupied by the heronry, and now, with somewhat over 15 acres in its ownership, protects about 85% of the nest trees. The heronry lies partly within Anacortes and therefore under the jurisdiction of the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance, and partly within Skagit County’s jurisdiction. Anacortes has been very supportive of strong protection for this important heronry, the County Commissioners and Planning Commission, less so.

A dedicated set of volunteers have for years counted the nests each year and gathered detailed observations of the herons’ used of both the heronry and of nearby foraging and staging areas during the breeding and nesting season. Lead volunteer Anne Winkes has written a very detailed and interesting report of these observations for the 2021 season, which is available on request (email me at bctm@fidalgo.net). The Land Trust has provided this report and other information to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff who will review the heronry management plan required of the contractor who will be doing the dump clean up. To date, vegetation has been cleared from the dump site and, more recently, some of the buildings remaining from the previous saw-mill have been removed. The clean-up itself is scheduled to begin in 2023 and will basically involve capping the site in such as way as to block leaching of toxins into Padilla Bay.

Also of note, next year the Land Trust will be upgrading the no longer functioning heron cam by replacing it with 3 video cameras with audio and night vision capability. These will enable closer observation of heron nesting and breeding without disturbing the birds. There will be a live feed to the Land Trust’s web site. An enthusiastic thank you is in order to all of you who contributed to the latest land addition to the protected portion of the heronry and to the fund which is supporting the camera upgrade.

Issues needing action:   

Audubon members can advocate for regional and national protection of birds and other wildlife and their habitat by responding to action alerts from Washington Audubon and National Audubon. Sign up for Audubon Washington’s Action Network at https://act.audubon.org/onlineactions/JGKjknsVTUKMSr4BoP2Nvw2. The National Audubon website (https://www.audubon.org) has abundant information on Audubon’s numerous current conservation campaigns. Sign up there to receive national alerts. Also see the Audubon Washington blog for information about a variety of interesting and important issues: https://wa.audubon.org/landing/audublog.

For other issues Skagit Audubon tracked during the past year, some of which are ongoing, see earlier issues of Conservation Notes on the Skagit Audubon website: www. Skagitaudubon.org under the Conservation tab at the top of the page.

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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.

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