A plan to save depleting species of salmon in Seattle is running into trouble as development continues around the area. Lee Hochberg reports.
LEE HOCHBERG: A booming economy has lured thousands of newcomers to the Seattle area. They find a vibrant natural environment and waterways seemingly teeming with fish. Ironically, though, the fish that symbolizes the region and entertains shoppers at Seattle's Pike Place Market, is in peril. The federal government has proposed listing Chinook salmon, celebrated in Seattle's public art and on city buses and revered by the region's native Americans, as an endangered species. Rob Jones is from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
ROB JONES, National Marine Fisheries Service: Most of our Chinook populations are really struggling, going from numbers in the millions to in some cases disappearing altogether from various areas up and down the coast.
LEE HOCHBERG: The federal government has given Northwest policy makers a year to draft a plan to save the Chinook. The fish have been harmed by hydroelectric dams on Northwest rivers, over-logging, over-fishing, and urban development in Seattle and Portland. Salmon hatch in the streams of the Cascade Mountains, swim through rivers in those cities to the Pacific Ocean, then return to their birthplace years later to spawn. For the fish to recover, habitat changes have to be made all along that route, including in those two major Northwest cities. It's the first time that an urban area has been told to recover a threatened species. In Seattle, that task has fallen to King County government's top administrator, Ron Sims.
RON SIMS, King County Executive: There's so many stakeholders. We have timber interests, agricultural interests, business interests, home building interests, environmental interests, urban neighborhood interests, road building interests. I mean, we have everything clashing. How can we do this and allow our economy to continue to grow? It's going to be a very, very daunting task.
LEE HOCHBERG: By boat, on Seattle's industrialized Duwamish River, one gets a sobering look at how daunting it will be.
BOB FUEISTENBERG, King County Ecologist: 97 percent of the estuary has been lost since about the turn of the century, so we're down to this remaining piece.
LEE HOCHBERG: King County Ecologist Bob Fueistenberg points to a river whose bottom has been filled and banks hardened to accommodate warehouses and heavy industry. Once it was home for 300,000 wild Chinook and other salmon. Only 60,000 salmon remain today, most of them hatchery, not wild fish.
BOB FUEISTENBERG: This isn't Seattle's industrial land, and it's very difficult to convince people they should remove riffraff or bulkheads or change the shore line when they believe that it impacts their business.
LEE HOCHBERG: Even the Boeing Company's parking lot alongside the river harms the salmon.
BOB FUEISTENBERG: Those cars, many of them, leak a little bit of oil, and much of that material, when it rains, comes off into the river itself. The effect on salmon in many cases is if it doesn't kill them directly, by and large, it can really compromise their ability to survive or to escape from predators even to feed in some places.
LEE HOCHBERG: Ecologists say Seattle businesses could eliminate 70 percent of the area's water quality problems and help the Chinook by installing systems to process storm water runoff. Boeing has begun doing that, but other landowners have balked at the cost. County Executive Sims has proposed a $1.1 billion sewer system expansion to reduce overflow into rivers and help salmon. He says needed habitat acquisition and restoration could cost another $900 million. And the county will need new road building methods and a new approach to development. Builders, though, are resisting.
ROBERT PANTLEY, Builder: If we don't allow these homes to be built, where do our working class people live, where does the firefighter live, where does the police officer live, where does the teacher live?
LEE HOCHBERG: Robert Pantley built these homes only 25 feet off a salmon stream in suburban Seattle. He says proposals to keep new houses at least 100 feet from the streams would prevent homes from being built and are bad policy in a city with intense growth pressures.
ROBERT PANTLEY: What are our highest values? Is it saving a stream that handles a hundred fish really what we should be doing?
LEE HOCHBERG: King County Councilman Rob McKenna sees an even bigger problem with the drive to save Chinook. He says other types of salmon are still plentiful and asks whether the Endangered Species Act is being misinterpreted.
ROB McKENNA, King County Council: Salmon are the only endangered species that you can buy for $6.99 a pound at Safeway. Salmon are abundant in Alaska. They're abundant in British Columbia. And they're abundant in the Puget Sound area in terms of Sockeye and Coho, and we're not-
LEE HOCHBERG: Different types.
ROB McKENNA: Different types of salmon.
LEE HOCHBERG: He adds that while protecting endangered species makes sense in natural environments, cities are built for people, not animals.
ROB McKENNA: How realistic is it to maintain levels of wild animals in an urban area? What other wild animals are we attempting to preserve in the urban environment-cougars, bears? Sometimes in an urban area the best you can do with wild animals is to go see them out at a zoo. The human costs of trying to maintain a purely wild species in an urban environment may simply be too large.
LEE HOCHBERG: County executive Sims answers that in the Seattle area, where 56 water bodies don't meet government clean water standards, it's unwise to ignore a threatened species.
SIMS: People don't want to see a species become extinct. It's been a part of our culture here forever, a sign of good fortune and good luck. Many of us talk and brag about our salmon-communities. We shouldn't have development at a cost of the natural beauty we have in this region.
LEE HOCHBERG: One hundred sixty miles to the South in Oregon political leaders are exploring policies that might minimize that investment. They've been trying to stave off an endangered species listing for another threatened fish, the steelhead. In addition to approving a billion dollar program to expand sewers and reduce storm water overflow, Portland is trying to change the habits of ordinary citizens. The city is offering $50 to homeowners who disconnect their gutters from the sewer system and let rainwater drain into their yards. Thirty-five hundred homeowners have participated, keeping an estimated 56 million gallons of water out of the city's overflowing sewers.
ERIK STEN, Portland City Commissioner: Well, this is Johnson Creek, and what we've done is restored steelhead habitat down here.
LEE HOCHBERG: But City Commissioner Erik Sten has seen there are limits to public cooperation. In an attempt to restore habitat and reduce flooding at this steel head spawning creek in Portland, the city bought and knocked down 20 houses and spent $3 million to develop a park on the creek's flood plain. But even before new trees have taken root, a neighboring property owner has moved aggressively on a $13 million development that threatens to counteract all the city has accomplished.
ERIK STEN: It's just every inch in a developed city is being contested. His development will continue to put pollutants in this creek, and there's nothing I can do about it. Here the city is spending money to fix things here and losing ground across the street.
LEE HOCHBERG: Builder Bruce Wood says Portland leaders have long encouraged development in the depressed urban neighborhood and questions if salmon should be a priority.
BRUCE WOOD, Developer: We're going to bring in the neighborhood of three hundred and three hundred and fifty jobs, family wage jobs, into an area that arguably could use it. We had already given over eight acres of the total developed area to environmental issues. I mean, at some point you have to kind of drop the line and say too much is too much.
LEE HOCHBERG: Even if urban areas do all they can do, some environmentalists say it won't be enough. They argue salmon won't recover until the Northwest's expensive chain of hydroelectric dams is altered. To keep fish from being ground up in the ground's turbines, the Army Corps of Engineers has been barging them around the dams for more than 20 years. Government scientists, though, say the $3 billion barging program has accomplished little.
But legislation has been introduced in Congress to prevent any changes to the dams that would cut production of electricity or availability of water for irrigators near the river. With opponents, both rural and urban, lining up, saving the salmon may be very much like swimming upstream.