Scientists say setbacks could save salmon
June 11, 2008 · Updated 10:48 AM
"How to comply with the Endangered Species Act and preserve growth: a conflict that promises a grinding halt to development on one hand and a domino-effect of species extinction on the other.The task appears to be politically impossible: finding the flexibility in an inherently inflexible law. The purpose of the ESA listing of Hood Canal summer chum salmon and Puget Sound chinook salmon as threatened was to challenge the status quo.At issue during Saturday's countywide salmon forum were Kitsap's sensitive riparian (streamside) areas, a critical habitat in the salmon life cycle and the reason for stream buffers.Whether or not stream setbacks should be static was the question of the day.You have to be a little bit careful of the best science, warned Carl Hadley of Associated Earth Sciences. He was one of five scientists addressing the crowd of several hundred.It can be extremely conservative. Sure, you can go out and put a 300- to 400-foot buffer on every stream and you'll protect fish ... but in some cases, you can provide the same amount of protection with a 50-foot buffer, he said.Hadley supported his admonitions with stories of rigid regulations bungling common sense development. One example was a south King County creek that ran under a busy residential road, under a house and through a culvert behind the house. Harried by intense development around it, the creek dried up for three months out of the year - making it uninhabitable. But when the homeowner applied for a permit to further develop the property, King County asked for 150-foot buffers for the caged-in stream.There are some creeks where you're better off leaving them where they are, Hadley said, to laughter and shaking heads in the crowd.But a varied and flexible approach to buffers would be terribly expensive for the county. It would require, Hadley guessed, a staff of salmon and habitat biologists skilled enough to know the difference between a stream requiring a 200-foot setback and one that would make do with a 50-foot buffer.To put the buffer debate in context, other scientists urged the crowd to look beyond immediate problems and at the bigger picture of the cumulative damage to salmon habitat.So the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the sons, paraphrased Dr. James Buell, president of Buell and Associates environmental consulting firm.It isn't fair, but I'm not sure who said it has to be, Buell added. We need to rehabilitate. We need to look at new ways of doing things because the old ones got us where we are now, Buell said. I guess ... if you get here late, you get what's left.What's left, according to Department of Natural Resources Salmon Biologist Jeff Cederholm, are vastly depleted fish stocks and debilitated streams. Now our stocks are so diminished that what we do in watersheds is magnified, Cederholm said. You ask the question as if that's the only thing there is, and it's not, Buell said. Other habitat detriments, like pollution and unnatural waterflow, can trump the viability of the healthiest riparian areas.You have to ask it in context of what is good for salmon and what is not, Buell said.County Commissioner Tim Botkin asked the panel what kind of flexible regulations they thought the National Marine Fisheries Service (which regulates the ESA) would accept. I'm not going to speak for NMFS, but I know the answer, Buell said. It all depends.As words of advice to the county commissioners and planning commission, Buell suggested they keep it flexible, keep it varied and keep it comprehensive."