Conservation Notes - January 2021
- Last Updated: January 9, 2021
The following three items are on the agenda for the December 1, 2020, Skagit Audubon board meeting.
- WA State Parks & Recreation Commission issued a Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance on the Navy’s request to do special operations training in 28 state parks.
The Navy’s request to conduct special operations training in 28 (formerly 29) state parks has been considered by the Washington State Parks & Recreation Commission. The commission has issued a Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance (MDNS) for the proposal, meaning that the Commission believes the proposed activity would not have significant adverse effects on natural or cultural resources or on the experience of park visitors as long as specified mitigations are implemented. You can peruse that list of mitigations and read other background information on the State Parks webpage: http://bit.ly/ParksSEPA. There is even more background information at https://parks.state.wa.us/1168/Navy-proposal. It seems that the Commission is poised to approve the Navy’s request to use these state parks as training sites. The original 2 weeks during the holiday period allowed for written comment provoked an unfavorable public response, and consequently the comment period has been extended to 5 p.m. on January 22nd (see http://bit.ly/ParksSEPA). If you would like to provide verbal comment, you can do so at a virtual meeting on January 26. Instructions on how to register to do this are at https://parks.state.wa.us/1168/Navy-training-proposal. The Parks Commission will be considering (and voting on?) the Navy’s request at their regularly scheduled meeting on January 28, 2021.
Skagit Audubon’s comments on the Navy’s proposal were mentioned in a Skagit Valley Herald article December 26, 2020. We will probably submit a letter to the Parks Commission in response to their MDNS, which appears to provide very weak and uncertain protection for the natural resources of the parks, including birds.
- Skagit County Commissioners vote 2-1 against improving protection for heronries.
To the surprise of many, on December 21st when the 3 Skagit County Commissioners had their formal vote on the 2019 docket of proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan and Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO), Mr. Wesen switched his vote and joined Mr. Dahlstedt in opposing any change to the unclear and arguably inadequate CAO protections for heronies. Just before the vote, Commissioner Lisa Janicki said, “I would argue that ignoring the plight of the Great Blue Heron is not something I want to be remembered for.” Commissioner Wesen did not explain why he changed his vote.
Here’s the back story leading up to this unfortunate outcome:
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 amended 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 county’s Critical Areas Ordinance. The Planning Commission advises the 3-member 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, which ignored best available science and disregarded the great majority of public opinion. 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 proposed changes to the county’s Comprehensive Plan, including the Critical Areas Ordinance. 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 began 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. Commissioner Dahlstedt indicated he would not support improving protection for heronries.
In early December, Skagit Land Trust did the annual nest count in the March Point heronry, believed the largest in the western U.S. The total: 706 nests. The fragility of such mega-colonies was brought home in 2017 when the adult herons at the Samish Island heronry suddenly abandoned over 300 nests during the breeding season. If the March Point heronry suffers a similar fate, we’ll remember December 21st, 2020, when Commissioners Dahlstedt and Wesen voted to do nothing.
- Washington State 120-day legislative session begins January 11th.
In the January Skagit Flyer Conservation Report:
“The state legislative session will run from January 11th to April 25th. Audubon Washington staff and chapters statewide will pursue 3 priorities:
1.Protect conservation funding in the state operating and capital budgets
2.Pass a Clean Fuel Standard
3.Update the Growth Management Act to include climate change and environmental justice as planning elements
“You may have heard Governor Inslee discussing the Clean Fuel Standard, which has gone before the legislature several times and may succeed in 2021. With transportation the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Washington, this bill would be a significant step in addressing climate change, a crisis for both birds and people. Read about Audubon’s work in the legislature and get involved: https://wa.audubon.org/conservation/legislative-session-2020. Audubon is also part of the Environmental Priorities Coalition. Learn about the coalition’s priority issues at www.wecprotects.org.”
The first item above, protecting conservation funding, refers to maintaining the budget of the Department of Fish & Wildlife, for example. This agency has primary responsibility at the state level for studying and protecting rare, threatened, and endangered species and their habitats. The Department of Natural Resources also has responsibilities important to the Audubon mission in its Natural Heritage Program, which documents rare plant and animal populations, and in its management of important habitat, such as nesting areas for the Marbled Murrelet.
Updates on other issues Skagit Audubon is following
- Expanding Deception Pass State Park
The 83-acre Nyberg property adjacent to Deception Pass State Park was sold at auction for back taxes on December 4th. The one bidder expressed interest in selling the property to State Parks. This is the largest piece of privately-owned undeveloped land remaining on Fidalgo Island. In June of this year, Skagit Audubon sent a letter to the Washington State Parks Commission supporting a Recreation & Conservation Office (RCO) grant to purchase this land for addition to Deception Pass State Park. The project ranks 6 of 10 on the RCO list. Among the next steps are the Governor’s approval and sufficient appropriated funds.
- Weakening implementation of the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act
On December 14th, Skagit Audubon President Jeff Osmundson and Conservation Chair Tim Manns met at Fir Island Farms Reserve (aka Hayton) for an hour of birding and conversation with Congressman Rick Larsen. Larsen represents Washington’s 2nd Congressional District, in which many of Skagit Audubon’s members live. This meeting was at the request of Larsen’s office. The session largely focused on observing and talking about the birds we were seeing, but there was also an opportunity to discuss Larsen’s support for the Migratory Bird Protection Act, of which he is a co-sponsor. This bill would codify the long-time interpretation of how the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA) is to be applied. Until the reinterpretation by the Justice Department in 2017 and recent federal rule-making to solidify that interpretation, the MBTA was understood to protect birds from accidental as well as deliberate harm. This interpretation and the accompanying penalties provided an incentive to avoid actions harmful to birds and protected almost all bird species in the U.S. The MBTA is, or was, arguably the most important legal protection for birds in the United States. It was the basis for BP being fined $100 million for the deaths of more than 100,000 seabirds when the company’s 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 is covered under the act.
The administration proceeded with rule-making despite the fact that in August 2020 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. Rule-making can be undone, though the process is laborious, but this new rule can be reversed, or the MBTA protections could be renewed by passing the Migratory Bird Protection Act. 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
From the January Skagit Flyer newsletter’s Conservation Report:
“Skagit Audubon recently signed letters to Governor Jay Inslee and British Columbia Premier John Horgan from a coalition of U.S. and Canadian conservation and governmental groups urging permanent protection for the ‘Donut Hole’. This is an area surrounded by B.C.’s Manning and Skagit Valley Provincial Parks where Imperial Metals Corporation owns rights to an allegedly large copper deposit. The company’s request to begin mineral exploration has raised alarm among environmental groups in British Columbia and Washington State and among other entities with downstream interests, from the Swinomish, Upper Skagit, and Sauk-Suiattle Tribes to municipalities such as Mount Vernon and Anacortes which draw water from the river. There is a significant chance that toxic runoff from mining the Donut Hole would drain to the Skagit with dire effects on salmon, people, and any others dependent on the river. A coalition of groups in the U.S. and Canada is meeting biweekly to pursue permanent protection for the Donut Hole and, thereby, the Skagit River.”
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.