Skagit Audubon Conservation Notes January 7, 2020

The 6 numbered items immediately below were on the agenda for the Skagit Audubon board meeting January 7, 2020.

  • Update on Proposed Changes to Anacortes Critical Areas Ordinance and Parks Comprehensive Plan

The Growth Management Act requires Washington cities and counties to have a Comprehensive Plan guiding development and land use. The Plan must include a Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) regulating development near wetlands, steep slopes, and certain other areas as well as potentially including provisions related to protected species of wildlife. Skagit Audubon played a role years ago in seeing that the Skagit County CAO gives at least a nod to the communal nesting sites of the Great Blue Heron. This species is of special note in Skagit County because there are so many here, attracted to the rich feeding opportunities in the bays and fields as well as the availability of nesting sites. At over 700 nests, the March Point heronry is quite possibly the second largest heronry on the U.S. West Coast. The heronry suddenly abandoned on Samish Island a few years ago had over 300 nests. There are also several smaller heronries in the county. Because most of the March Point heronry is on land owned by Skagit Land Trust and other heronries in the county are either on Land Trust property or on property with a conservation easement held by the Land Trust, Skagit Land Trust staff and associated volunteers have been working for over a year towards modification of the CAOs of Anacortes and Skagit County to provide some actual protection for these important sites. The process of modifying CAOs is lengthy. Land Trust staff and volunteers have met with planning staff for the City of Anacortes and at Skagit County Planning and Development Services and have presented on the CAO changes to each entity’s Planning Commission. (See Item 3 below for more concerning the county’s CAO)

Other proposed changes to the Anacortes Critical Areas Ordinance could weaken protection of wetlands in the city such as the Ship Harbor Interpretive Preserve, which hosts a great variety of birds and other wildlife species. Skagit Audubon opposes weakening of wetland protections, and representatives from the Skagit board have submitted written comments and spoken on this topic at Planning Commission and City Council meetings. The public comment period  closed on January 3, 2020, but our representatives will continue to monitor progress, including a review of the final text to be submitted to the City Council by the end of January as well as any amendments the Council may make.

  • Environmental Priorities Coalition and Lobby Day, Jan. 30th

Audubon is again joining with over 20 other groups in the Environmental Priorities Coalition (EPC) for a day of lobbying in Olympia. This will happen on Thursday, January 30. This is a non-budget writing year, and accordingly the legislative session will be just 60 days, starting January 13 and ending March 12. To participate in Lobby Day, register at https://act.audubon.org/onlineactions/3IOf9WpIWk-kMapKrXtOnw2.  On January 9, there will be a webinar to preview the upcoming issues of interest to Audubon in the legislature. Register for the webinar at https://act.audubon.org/onlineactions/eyWVDc-EbEaFRzAUUA75lA2

You can read about the EPC’s 4 priorities, chosen by the organizational members of the coalition, and read updates during the legislative session at https://wecprotects.org/environmental-priorities-coalition/.

From the EPC website (https://wecprotects.org/environmental-priorities-coalition/):

“For the 2020 legislative session, we have adopted four priorities essential for healthy communities and a thriving environment: Clean Fuels Now (Clean Fuel Standard), Healthy Habitat Healthy Orcas (we seek passage of a new standard, net ecological gain), Climate Pollution Limits, and Reduce Plastic Pollution (Reusable Bag Act eliminating thin carry-home plastic bags at all retail establishments).”

For more detail, here is the EPC’s roll-out announcement from Dec. 18, 2019

(https://wecprotects.org/washington-environmental-community-sets-bold-agenda-for-2020-legislative-session/):

“2020 Environmental Priorities:

  • CLEAN FUELS NOW
    The transportation sector is responsible for nearly half of the climate and air pollution in Washington. Our state needs a transportation system that is clean, affordable, and accessible. A Clean Fuel Standard will require fuel producers and importers to reduce pollution from the fuels that power our transportation system. It is a tested and effective policy, that passed the House in 2019, that would clean our air, give us more options to fuel our vehicles (such as electricity and local renewable biofuels), create economic development, cut climate pollution, and move us beyond oil.
  • REDUCE PLASTIC POLLUTION
    Local waterways, shorelines, and recycling systems are overloaded with plastic pollution. Thin plastic bags that are used for just a few minutes and then thrown away pose a particular problem: only 6% ever get recycled. Single-use bags enter into our waterways and the ocean where they clog the stomachs of wildlife and fish that we eat. They also clog recy­cling equipment where they are costly to remove and are the major contaminant in our commercial compost. The Reusable Bag Act would eliminate thin carry-home plastic bags at all retail establishments and help Washington address a growing recycling crisis.
  • CLIMATE POLLUTION LIMITS
    Climate action requires carbon reductions across the board and deep investments in healthier natural landscapes—shorelines, forests, and farms. This means setting credible and ambitious climate pollution limits, providing clear direction to meet these limits, and investing in nature-based solutions like trees and soils to capture excess carbon. This priority will update the state’s greenhouse gas limits to reflect current science and lay groundwork to reach net zero carbon emissions and beyond.
  • HEALTHY HABITAT HEALTHY ORCAS
    With our beloved orcas facing extinction and Puget Sound falling farther behind on the road to recovery, bold action is needed to increase salmon populations and restore local waters. After decades of development-related habitat loss, we seek passage of a new standard, net ecological gain, to protect and restore habitat, and leave our environment better than we found it for future generations. We will work with state and local governments to implement this key Orca Task Force recommendation to accomplish results now and in the future.”

Particularly the first two priorities made headway in the last legislative session and are now being take up again. The EPC website does not yet have bill numbers for these priorities or additional detail. Fact sheets will be forthcoming and will be available at Lobby Day for distribution to law makers.

Given that Skagit County has extensive agricultural areas and forests, the Audubon Washington website’s reference to “natural climate solutions” (pertinent to the third priority above, “Climate Pollution Limits”) is particularly pertinent for Skagit Audubon. From the Audubon Washington website (https://wa.audubon.org/news/natural-solutions-climate-change):

“Audubon’s new report, Survival by Degrees, offers a jarring look at the impacts of climate change on the birds we love.  … But the most important takeaway from our latest report isn’t that birds are facing a crisis – it’s that we have the power in our hands to protect birds and people from the worst impacts of a changing climate.

“By taking action – personally and politically – we can hold our planet’s increasing thermostat to 1.5 degrees Celsius. By doing so, we’ll protect 76% of bird species in North America.

“. . . We’re excited to continue this work, but starting in 2020, we’re also turning our attention to what’s called natural climate solutions, policies that protect and enhance Washington’s farms, fields, forests, and coastal habitat in order to sequester carbon emissions.

“Our goal is to do what the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is necessary: reach net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century. . . . We’re still working out the precise details of a policy that would set strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions and incorporate natural climate solutions into our state’s targets. For now though, Audubon Washington is working with stakeholders to refine and support legislation that would set up a “sustainable farm and fields” program. This program serves as an example of how our state can help support farmers and landowners who want to do what’s necessary to combat climate change, but just need a bit of support to make it happen.”

(EPC’s 2019 priorities were: 100% Clean Electricity (passed), Orca Emergency Response, Oil Spill Prevention (passed), Reducing Plastic Pollution)

 

  • Heronries in Skagit County’s Critical Areas Ordinance: Important Jan. 21st Meeting

We can help improve the protection of heronries in the non-incorporated parts of Skagit County by attending the County Planning Commission’s January 21st meeting (6:00 p.m. at the county offices on Continental Place, Mount Vernon). Skagit Audubon members were among those who attended the Planning Commission’s December 17, 2019, meeting to show support for strengthening the portion of the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance addressing heronries. Skagit Land Trust, which owns or has conservation easements on several of Skagit County’s heronries, has been working for the last year to this end. Note that part of the very important March Point heronry, with over 700 nests, is in Anacortes; part in Skagit County outside the city limits. On January 21, at 6:00 p.m., the County Planning Commission will take public testimony on the changes proposed to the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance, including those related to heronries. Some of the Planning Commissioners appear to be in favor, some are opposed, and others might be persuaded to act if there is enough evidence of public support. Whether or not you are willing to make a 2 or 3 minute comment, please attend the meeting to show support by your presence. You can find details of the Land Trust’s proposals and talking points on the Skagit Land Trust website: http://www.skagitlandtrust.org/pages/takeaction.aspx. The deadline for written comments addressed to the Planning Commission is 4:30 p.m. on January 24 (https://www.skagitcounty.net/PlanningAndPermit/Documents/notices2019/December/2019docket.michaelc.12.27.19.pdf). Once the commissioners have voted on the proposed CAO changes, they will make a recommendation to the Board of County Commissioners, and there will probably be another opportunity for public comment before the County Commissioners accept or reject the changes. As always, it takes only 2 Commissioners to decide the outcome of this very lengthy process.

  • Settlement agreement on Marathon’s Clean Products Upgrade Project (aka the Xylene Project)

Following the successful appeal of the Shoreline Hearings Board decision by the consortium of environmental groups opposing this project, Marathon Oil, Skagit County and the consortium came to a settlement. The “Clean Products Upgrade Project” included several disparate elements, the largest being to equip Marathon’s March Point refinery for production mixed xylenes from crude oil as a precursor to manufacturing plastics. The principle market for the xylenes would be China, to which these volatile liquids would be shipped. Skagit Audubon participated in the scoping and other comment opportunities in the preparation of the Environmental Impact Statement for this project, particularly expressing concern over the potential impact to birds, other wildlife, and people from a spill of colorless, odorless, highly toxic xylenes. We joined other groups in also expressing concern about the impact to orcas of increased shipping involving addition noise in the marine environment and increased chance of spills. Under the settlement agreement, Marathon will not equip the refinery to produce xylenes from crude oil. The other two elements of the project will go forward: installing vapor capture equipment at the end of the dock and equipment to reduce the sulfur in diesel fuel. The coalition which successfully brought suit includes Stand.earth, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, Friends of the San Juans, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, and Evergreen Islands. Local news articles did not state a reason for Marathon’s decision nor what other developments may follow. There is speculation that the trade war with China disrupted the market for exporting xylenes from the U.S., which reduced Marathon’s interest in making the necessary large investment. The possible ability of Marathon to receive crude oil by rail in excess of the refinery’s needs and the prospect of an enlarged pipeline from British Columbia delivering more Albertan tar sands crude via the Trans Mountain Pipeline could enable Marathon to use its Anacortes facilities as an export terminal for crude oil. The federal ban on exporting U.S. sourced crude oil via Puget Sound was repealed several years ago.

  • DNR’s Marbled Murrelet Management Plan and Sustainable Harvest Calculation

The Board of Natural Resources (BNR) voted on December 3, 2019, to select Alternative H for the Long-term Conservation Strategy for managing Marbled Murrelet habitat on state trust lands. Alternative H had previously been chosen as the preferred. Skagit Audubon had joined other Audubon chapters in signing a letter to the BNR, which oversees the WA Department of Natural Resources, urging that they delay their decision and that they ultimately not choose Alternative H. The best available modeling indicates that the acreage of murrelet nesting habitat on state trust lands that would be protected under Alternative H is insufficient to stem the rapid decline of this threatened species in Washington let alone recovering its population. Choosing the best strategy is complicated by the dependence of some counties on revenue from timber harvest on state trust lands and DNR’s interpretation of its fiduciary duty to maximize revenues from this land. This runs up against DNR’s legal obligation under the Endangered Species Act ESA) to protect and recover the Marbled Murrelet. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, responsible for enforcing the ESA, has approved the BNR’s decision.

Skagit Audubon submitted multiple comment letters to DNR during the 7 years that preparation of the plan and EIS were underway. DNR manages a significant amount of land in Skagit County suitable for Marbled Murrelet nesting. Under Alternative H, only 731 acres of the over 80,000 acres of DNR-managed Trust Lands in Skagit County will be set aside for Marbled Murrelet habitat.

Every 10 years, DNR issues a projection of how many board feet will be available for cutting on each county’s trust lands which it manages. This projection is called the Sustainable Harvest Calculation. The revenues from timber harvest on trust lands support particular public institutions. This is a very significant source of revenue in Skagit County for the Burlington-Edison and Concrete School Districts, Hospital District 304 in Sedro-Woolley, and the Central Skagit Library District. The Sustainable Harvest Calculation for 2015-2024 was delayed while DNR completed the Marbled Murrelet Long-term Strategy because acreage set aside for murrelets would affect the harvest projection. It is the 2015-2024 projection which DNR just released late in 2019. Under this projection, there has been too much cutting in Skagit County during the first half of the decade, and subsequently, the amount of timber harvested and the related revenue will have to decrease in the second half.

Among all the state’s counties, Skagit is one of the highest dollar beneficiaries from cutting timber on state trust lands. DNR’s recently released calculation shows Skagit’s take significantly decreasing. Skagit County has subsequently brought suit against DNR, claiming, among other things, that DNR is abrogating its fiduciary duty to maximize revenue for the trust beneficiaries. The county’s complaint, which you can read on the County Commissioners web-page (https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/CountyCommissioners/main.htm See the link on the righthand side of the page) accuses DNR of also going against the wishes of Skagit County’s residents as expressed in the county’s Comprehensive Plan and of planning to use Trust Land forests for such ends as carbon sequestration rather than maximizing timber harvest revenue. This latter point will come up again, possibly in relation to the type of legislation that could come out of one of the Environmental Priorities Coalition 2020 goals. In its complaint filed in Skagit County Superior Court, the county carefully says it is not suing DNR over choosing Alternative H for the Marbled Murrelet strategy because so few acres in Skagit County are involved. Other groups, both environmental and timber industry, are suing in that matter. More and more people are asking how dependent we should be on timber revenues to support public institutions and whether maximizing the cut is the highest and best use of public forestlands in a warming climate.

  • Sign-on Letter from Vancouver Audubon re Proposed New Road in St. Helens National Monument

Vancouver Audubon Society continues its efforts to persuade the U.S. Forest Service to consider realistic options to building a road in Mt. St. Helens National Monument in conjunction with needed and periodic work at the outlet to Spirit Lake. The Forest Service manages this monument. The proposed road would go through an area where many long-term research projects are underway, causing impacts to those studies that could be avoided by choosing among the other options for accomplishing the necessary work. Vancouver Audubon is asking the other 24 Audubon chapters in the state to add their names and support to its efforts. If you would to read Vancouver Audubon’s letter to the Forest Service, contact Tim Manns (conservation@skagitaudubon.org).

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Other issues on which action is needed:

 

Management Plan for Teshekpuk Lake Wetlands in National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska

Teshekpuk Lake in the National Petroleum Reserve in northern Alaska is an area important to many thousands of birds including species that winter here in Skagit County. The administration’s proposed plan would seriously weaken protections for this area in the plan with which National Audubon was involved some years ago. Please go to page 5 of Skagit Flyer’s January issue to see how you can comment by the deadline of January 21.

Additional Issues

Interpretation of the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Be sure to also read the update by Skagit Audubon Board Member Mary Sinker in the Skagit Flyer about the administration’s attempt to very significantly weaken this arguably most important law of all those protecting birds. The article is on page 6 of the January 2020 issue.

For information on more conservation issues of concern to Skagit Audubon, scroll down to Conservation Notes from previous months on the Skagit Audubon website.