Some 900 scientists, government and tribal leaders, activists and artists convene this week in Seattle for the 2009 Puget Sound-Georgia Basin Ecosystem Conference, the largest gathering of its kind.

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To learn what is affecting the waters of Puget Sound, they started here: in the forested and rapidly developing foothills of the Cascades.

From agencies, citizen watershed groups and engineering firms, this little band of investigators for a day was the advance troops in an army of their kind gathering in Seattle this week. The conference is focused on the health and environmental complexities of the Puget Sound-Georgia Basin, a vast stretch of trans-boundary saltwater that sluices from British Columbia to Olympia.

The first conference arrivals fanned out Sunday, on tours to look at everything from a wastewater-treatment technology in Carnation, to efforts to rein in sprawl development in Issaquah.

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By nightfall, some 900 scientists, academics, tribal leaders, policymakers and activists from around the U.S. and Canada were expected to converge for the 2009 Puget Sound-Georgia Basin Ecosystem Conference. Held biennially, it’s the largest gathering of its kind.

The conference will be encamped at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center in Seattle through Wednesday.

Unlike conferences in previous three years of a more purely academic bent, this year’s event is themed A Call to Action. It will culminate in a traditional Coast Salish tribal witness ceremony, in which priorities to protect and restore the transboundary Salish Sea will be stated.

Targeted actions

And that includes actions targeted not only at the water and near-shore environment, but the cities, suburbs, farms and forests that surround it. For whatever happens on the land, the results will flow downhill to the water.

“It’s an intimate connection,” said Sue Rooney, executive director of the Friends of the Cedar River Watershed, as her tour group walked the Issaquah Highlands development, one of King County’s experiments in controlling sprawl.

Keith Niven, a planner for the city of Issaquah, led the group around the Highlands, with streets laid out 2 feet narrower than usual to save on pavement that sluices water into the Sound.

Port Blakely, the developer, negotiated the project with King County and the city of Issaquah. The company could have developed its 2,300-acre property with the more than 300 homes on five-acre lots, each with their own well and septic tank, that existing zoning allowed.

Instead, the company was allowed urban levels of density on some of the property, in return for dedicating about threequarters of its land as publicly owned open space.

It’s not perfect. After the developer began clearing, a storm blew through and blasted remaining trees in a large forested wetland, suddenly more vulnerable to the wind because of the clearing around it.

“It ravaged the wetland trees,” said Niven, who added that it’s being replanted.

The mix of commercial development hoped for throughout the development also hasn’t happened. Instead of being distributed evenly through residential areas, it has clustered near Interstate 90.

Successful development

But the development is regarded as more successful than others that chewed up more land, and loaded more cars on more roads as commuters travel to distant jobs — land uses that aren’t good for Puget Sound.

“You can’t separate the land and water; you have to look at the whole basin,” said David Batker, of Earth Economics, a Seattle-based nonprofit, who met with the tour group to talk about the economic value the services a functioning Puget Sound environment provides for free, from stormwater management to water filtration.

He advocates zoning that protects functioning ecosystem services. It means thinking bigger, from uplands to lowlands, to the water, Batker said.

“If you don’t get the scale right, you can’t solve the problem.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

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