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Watching birds, protecting habitat, connecting with nature

Conservation Notes

Conservation Notes - September 2021

  1. Plan to develop the Big Bear Mine near Marblemount

In October 2020 the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued a Determination of Non-significance after the SEPA (environmental impact) review of a proposal to re-open and expand mining at the Cascade Big Bear Mine near Marblemount and the Skagit River. This appeared to be an attempt via a different approach to doing the jetty-stone quarrying in an earlier proposal dropped after concerted opposition. Skagit Audubon joined other organizations, government agencies, and individuals in expressing concern about the potential environmental effects of that earlier proposal. This time around it was the Department of Natural Resources rather than Skagit County playing the lead role in permitting the proposed mining operation. It took public records requests by the Skagit River Alliance (https://www.skagitriveralliance.org) to draw sufficient attention to the likelihood of asbestos in the green schist actinolite composing the rock at the site to cause DNR to withdraw its Determination of Non-Significance. For the mining project to go forward the applicant would now have to reapply, go through a new environmental analysis (SEPA), and describe how they would mitigate for the asbestos that would be released into the ground and air by the mining activity. The project proponent has not reapplied and, according to the Skagit River Alliance, is unlikely to do so. The Cascade Big Bear Mine is in the state’s 39th District, whose Senator Keith Wagoner was at pains with the DNR to get the permit approved.

There are at least two other mining proposals in Skagit County still alive. See the June 2021 Conservation Notes for more information about these:

Lake Erie Gravel Mine expansion (https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/PlanningAndPermit/ERIEgravelmine.htm). In March 2021, the Skagit County Hearing Examiner ordered the applicant to obtain a Geologically Hazardous Site Assessment within 120 days. The applicant failed to do so. In July 2021 the county’s Planning & Development Services Department denied the applicant’s request for an extension. The applicant then filed an appeal requesting more time to complete the assessment.  The Hearing Examiner’s requirement arises from public concern that expanding the gravel mining will destabilize nearby slopes endangering a county road and multiple homes. It is unclear whether the mining would threaten Lake Erie, a significant site for wintering waterfowl.

Grip Road Gravel Mine

Central Samish Valley Neighbors (https://centralsamish.wordpress.com), a local group in the Samish River watershed, has been fighting this proposed mine on Concrete Nor’West property for years. This August, the Skagit County Hearing Examiner denied the project applicant’s appeal of the County’s requirement that Critical Area review be completed for the entirety of the subject property associated with the proposed gravel mine, including the haul route. This should ensure a more thorough analysis of the potential impacts of this large project located very near the Samish River.

 

  1. Potential for allowing Fully Contained Communities in Skagit County

This issue is the main focus of the Conservation Report in the September issue of the Skagit Flyer newsletter, where the following appears:

“We look to the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) to protect the environment, prevent uncoordinated growth, and ensure quality of life. People value the rural character of much of Skagit County with its world-class agricultural soils and extensive forests. Audubon members also recognize the importance these rural areas have for supporting bird populations. Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, Snow Geese, many species of ducks, Dunlin and other shorebirds, raptors: all depend on farmland as an important component of the habitat they require. Many other species need the varied forests and wetlands of Skagit County.

“Under the GMA, Skagit County must accept a certain amount of human population growth. By agreement among the county’s incorporated towns and the county, 80% of this growth is to be accommodated within the towns or their adjacent designated “urban growth areas” (UGAs). Since 2015, Bellingham-based developer “Skagit Partners” has repeatedly sought the County Commissioners’ permission to build a so-called “Fully Contained Community” (FCC) in Skagit County. In a concession made to help ensure its passage in 1990, the GMA allows these large housing developments at urban density to be built in rural areas if a county so chooses. FCCs can include thousands of homes, and because they are in unincorporated areas, there are none of the services incorporated municipalities provide. Developers thus leave it to the county to add to its responsibilities the provision of basic services such as fire, police, and public works departments, libraries, schools, etc., all funded by the residents of the whole county.

“Changing tactics following repeated denial of permission for a particular FCC (“Avalon”), Skagit Partners has now requested a change in the county’s planning policies to give general permission for FCC’s. If granted by the County Commissioners, the door will be open for not one, but many, large scale housing developments on rural land over future decades, changing Skagit County forever to an array of sprawling suburban developments with ever less farmland and forest. In May of this year, the Skagit County Commissioners ignored 700 letters in opposition (one Commissioner openly stating he chose not to read them) and docketed the petition to amend the county’s planning policies to allow FCCs. Docketing directs the county’s planning department to further study the proposed policy change and sets up the very real possibility of final approval by the Commissioners. Under Skagit County’s antiquated three-Commissioner system, it takes just two votes to approve even so monumental a change as this.

“Counties nearer Seattle which allowed FCC’s now regret these large housing developments which plunk urban density onto rural areas leaving the county responsible for all services. Several have reversed their FCC policies. Skagit County’s UGAs have enough capacity for the projected growth. Developer Skagit Partners argues that FCCs will solve Skagit’s housing shortage and provide much-needed affordable housing. The very real shortage is no reason to ignore the fact that Skagit’s towns and UGAs have sufficient capacity for more development, and there is no guarantee that FCC housing will be “affordable” or will provide housing needed by people here now. The more accurate term for FCCs is sprawl. Opening the door to them would significantly threaten Skagit’s agricultural and forested lands. The lack of sufficient housing and its skyrocketing cost are serious problems, but allowing multi-thousand home developments outside incorporated areas is not the solution and could well mean the end of much that we value, including habitat for swans, snow geese, bald eagles, dunlin, falcons, ...

“For a clear overview of the FCC issue, read Margery Hite’s article in the Skagit Scoop (https://skagitscoop.org/blog/fully-contained-communities-and-why-we-should-be-worried-about-them/). The FCC threat is bringing together groups with diverse political, economic, and environmental interests. Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland is leading the way organizing opposition to allowing FCCs in Skagit County. To learn more and support this important effort to protect Skagit County as we know it for both people and birds, go to https://www.skagitonians.org/fight-fccs.”

 

  1. Environmental Lobby Day Training

Audubon Washington is one of the twenty-plus groups comprising the Environmental Priorities Coalition. Each year the coalition chooses three or four issues on which to focus its collective lobbying during the Washington State legislative session, which begins in January. This month (September) there will be two on-line webinars about advocating for

key environmental health and justice legislation in 2022. To participate, register here:

  • Wednesday, September 22, 2021 12:00-1:00PM

RSVP Here: https://us02web.zoom.us/.../tZckd-CrqTMpGtctoZc2m-SdKhzn...

  • Saturday, September 25, 2021 10:00-11:00AM

RSVP Here: https://us02web.zoom.us/.../tZAud...

For questions email kat@wcvoters.org

 

Audubon Washington contracts with professional lobbyist Brynn Brady to advance its priorities in the state legislature. Brady, and Adam Maxwell, Audubon Washington’s lead for government policy, will speak at the annual meeting of WSACC (Washington State Audubon Conservation Committee) on  Friday, September 24, 2021 2:00 PM - 4:00 PM. Register here for this virtual gathering: https://act.audubon.org/a/wa-2021-washington-state-audubon-conservation-council. At this meeting the conservation chairs from each Audubon chapter will vote on any submitted resolutions. Any Audubon member interested in advocacy for bird conservation is welcome to attend.

 

  1. Skagit Audubon Member Scott Andrews on Audubon Washington staff

Skagit Audubon member Scott Andrews recently joined the Audubon Washington staff as the first Senior Program Manager for Audubon’s Puget Sound initiative (https://wa.audubon.org/news/2021-puget-sound-conservation-strategy and https://wa.audubon.org/conservation/puget-sound-science). Scott worked for 19 years for the Swinomish Tribe as Environmental Compliance Manager focusing on air quality, hazardous waste and oil spill response, shoreline management, climate change, environmental regulation and permitting. Read more about Scott’s background on the Audubon Washington website: https://wa.audubon.org/about-us/staff  Congratulations to our fellow Skagit Audubon member on joining the Audubon Washington staff!

 

 

Updates on other issues Skagit Audubon is following

 

  1. Skagit County Shoreline Master Program update

Skagit Audubon submitted a comment letter on June 22, 2021, describing Audubon’s interest in the Shoreline Master Program (SMP) and supporting the detailed comment letters submitted by Skagit Land Trust and by Evergreen Islands in cooperation with RE Sources, Washington Environmental Council, and Guemes Island Planning Advisory Committee. The comments of Audubon and of the Land Trust particularly focused on the SMP’s failure to address sea level rise and its overly lenient approach to hard armoring of shorelines, which impedes forage fish spawning. This summer the county’s Planning staff and Commission have been reviewing the many submitted public comments. The Planning Commission will make recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) on changes to the draft SMP. The BOCC will decide on the county’s final draft SMP and forward it to the Washington State Department of Ecology for review, possible modification, and another public comment opportunity before final approval.

This Shoreline Master Program is intended to be a comprehensive update of the county’s 1976 Shoreline Master Program (SMP). As stated on the Department of Ecology’s website, the Shoreline Management Act, which requires SMP’s, applies to:

  • All marine waters
  • Streams and rivers with greater than 20 cubic feet per second mean annual flow
  • Lakes 20 acres or larger
  • Upland areas called shorelands that extend 200 feet landward from the edge of these waters
  • Biological wetlands and river deltas connected to these water bodies
  • Some or all of the 100-year floodplain, including all wetlands

For Skagit Audubon the relevance of this planning exercise lies in how shoreline regulations affect birds and other wildlife and their habitat needs. In reviewing the draft SMP, Audubon considers, for example, whether the marine shoreline spawning areas of forage fish, principal food for many seabirds, are adequately protected. The county’s draft SMP update gives very little attention to sea level rise and how it will affect development but also wildlife habitat. A realistic SMP would provide for inland migration of marsh areas, for example, as sea level increases. Other areas of concern include decrease in the size of required riparian and shoreline buffers, allowance for timber harvest in those buffers, and provisions for aquaculture (recall the problems with the fish farm off Cypress Island several years ago). On May 30th, the Skagit Scoop, a website featuring articles about Skagit County government, published an article about the SMP update which gives a good overview: https://skagitscoop.org/blog/skagit-shoreline-plan-draft-rewrite-raises-concerns/.

You can read about the SMP update, see the complete draft, and all the submitted public comments at:  https://skagitcountysmp.squarespace.com. For more detailed information about the current and also past Skagit County Shoreline Master Program planning efforts, go to https://skagitcounty.net/Departments/PlanningAndPermit/SMPmain.htm. Note that certain cities, such as Anacortes and Mount Vernon, are also required to have and update their own Shoreline Master Programs. The City of Anacortes has been updating its SMP and is scheduled to complete the work this year. The Anacortes plan has implications for the protection of the Ship Harbor Interpretive Reserve which Skagit Audubon has been tracking. The county’s SMP applies only to the unincorporated parts of Skagit County.

  1. Osprey nest on the MJB waterfront property in Anacortes

The city’s permit issued for the removal of the 2 towers on the MJB property near the waterfront at 17th and Q requires that the demolition wait until after osprey nesting is finished. It also “requests” that the developer at some unspecified future date provide a nesting platform for use by osprey, presumably somewhere on the property. An April 7th article on goSkagit.com/Anacortes  (https://www.goskagit.com/anacortes/news/mjb-will-remove-100-foot-towers-after-ospreys-leave-nest/article_32b534ce-980d-11eb-9717-f75447dd92b1.html) describes the situation. Information which Skagit Audubon received from the city did not indicate any measures being required to avoid disturbing the ospreys during site development work this summer. In April, Tim Manns wrote Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s District Wildlife Biologist inquiring if the department would be requiring or suggesting such measures. There was no response though it is clear that WDFW is aware of the project and was consulted before permits were issued. Some site work did take place this summer but not demolition of either tower as of this date (September 7, 2021). We welcome any information about whether or not the osprey young successfully fledged.

  1. Longview/Millenium Proposed Coal Export Terminal

In recent years there were as many as seven proposed coal export facilities in the Pacific Northwest, the closest to Skagit County being one planned for Cherry Point in Whatcom County. One by one, these plans to facilitate the continued burning of coal were defeated. The last one was the Millenium Bulk Terminals project proposed for Longview Washington along the Columbia River. Skagit Audubon joined many other Audubon chapters and conservation organizations in opposition. On June 28, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the last legal appeal of Washington State’s 2017 decision to deny the required water quality permits, effectively ending the attempt to build this coal export facility. (https://wecprotects.org/news/u-s-supreme-court-dismisses-last-legal-appeal-for-washington-state-coal-export-proposal/)

 

For other issues Skagit Audubon tracked during the last 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.

 

Community Science – Bird Monitoring Projects

Conservation planning and advocacy for protecting birds and their habitat relies on good data. Community science projects give us all an opportunity to help gather that needed information. Here are some of the community science projects happening in our area.

 

  1. Counting Vaux’s Swifts at migratory roost sites in Skagit County

Monitoring this fall of the two roost sites in downtown Sedro-Woolley has so far produced observations of a few swifts but none entering either chimney. Those sites and the one at the old Northern State Hospital will be checked a few more times in September. Volunteers interested in helping should contact Tim Manns (conservation@skagitaudubon.org) or Brian Zinke (director@pilchuckaudubon.org).

 

  1. Puget Sound Seabird Survey

This long-running project of Seattle Audubon which expanded to Skagit County sites a few years ago did not happen last fall/winter due to the pandemic but will resume this year. For information, go to  http://www.seabirdsurvey.org/seabirdsurvey/

 

  1. Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve

John Day, member of the Skagit Audubon Board, organizes this fall/winter monthly count at the Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve in conjunction with RE Sources and the Department of Natural Resources, which manages the reserve between March Point, the Fidalgo Bay R.V. Resort, and State Route 20. The project began several years ago when the aquatic reserve’s Citizen Stewardship Committee requested Skagit Audubon’s assistance. Opportunities to participate will expand when pandemic-related restrictions can be relaxed.

  1. Climate Watch

Climate Watch is a community science project of National Audubon which Pam Pritzl, Skagit Audubon board member, extended to Skagit County in 2021. There is a straightforward protocol to follow for this study of the relationship among bird populations, habitat, and climate change. More participants are needed. Read about the project at https:// www.audubon.org/conservation/climate-watch.

 

  1. Puget Sound Bird Observatory’s Estuarine Bird Surveys at Port Susan Bay

            Other Skagit Audubon conservation issues and  activities

Puget Sound Bird Observatory (https://www.pugetsoundbirds.org) will be starting surveys at The Nature Conservancy’s Port Susan Bay Preserve following a strict protocol either this month or during the coming winter. Cindy Easterson, past President of Pilchuck Audubon, is the lead for this project.

  1. Regional Wetland Secretive Bird Survey

Another project of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory (https://www.pugetsoundbirds.org) led by Cindy Easterson, this survey takes place in the spring. It was extended to sites in Skagit County just several years ago and could use more volunteers. 

Issues needing action:   

One way for Audubon members to advocate for regional and national protection of birds and other wildlife and their habitat is to respond 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.

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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.