I first drove up Interstate 5 and into Seattle late in 1980, with the sun rising on my right and Mount St. Helens smoldering in the distance. Back then Washington had fewer people, its mountains more glacial ice. Having lived in New York, Pittsburgh, Denver and San Francisco, with meandering road trips in between, I knew our country had great cities and great landscapes. I didn’t know there was a place with both and instantly understood I had found home.

Like a river, Seattle and surrounds are ever changing, while also remaining somewhat the same place. We itchily reinvent ourselves, losing a lot of the quirkiness that first charmed me — no more Dog House restaurant, no more Dumi marimba band. But we have gained everything from farmers markets to the soon-to-be downtown Seattle waterfront park. We’ve stayed the great Pacific Northwest, so far.

In spite or maybe because of this constant churn, the region is rightly famous for answering the call to care for its outdoors. Over my time here, hundreds of thousands of acres have been protected across central Puget Sound by the combined action of citizens and their governments.

From saving 15,000 acres of farmland in the ’80s, to conserving the 50,000 acre Teanaway River Valley, to launching Forterra’s affordable housing projects last year, I’ve worked alongside hundreds of citizens, professionals and elected leaders committed to making this place even better. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way about how our land contributes to a sustainable, welcoming and vibrant place — or not.

This ridge overlooks the Skagit River and, beyond, the town of Hamilton, whose residents Forterra is  trying to help move from the flood plain. (Laurel Ramseyer)
This ridge overlooks the Skagit River and, beyond, the town of Hamilton, whose residents Forterra is trying to help move from the flood plain. (Laurel Ramseyer)

Because there’s more of us, with everyone expecting the paraphernalia of a modern society, we face all the challenges of a growing population in a 21st century economy. The demands we are putting on our land base risk overwhelming the region. And make no mistake, land is fundamental to our lives and livelihoods — whether you’re a Denny Regrade Amazonian, a pine marten in the Cascades or a great pacific octopus in the Puget Sound trough. To best respond, we must first agree on what’s at stake and where we are headed.

Three big, interrelated factors need to be front and center as we decide how to use our land — and when to leave it be.

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First, there isn’t much of it and worse, it’s like a supersized funnel. I can breakfast in Seattle, be on a snowcapped peak by noon and back for an evening stroll along Puget Sound. That thin band of land between the Cascades and the Sound — never wider than 25 miles — is home to our towns and cities, forest lands and farms. Each acre has to count.

Everything we pour or spill, unless we intercept it, finds its way to the Sound. From the drippings of an engine gasket to the expired prescription medicines we pour down drains, it all impacts Puget Sound from microscopic plankton at one end of the food chain to its iconic orca at the other.

Second, you guessed it, is changing climate. We can change how we use land to minimize the impacts of climate change, or we can carry on and let the climate change what’s possible on our land. We need to think about how we maintain our land base now to respond to the future challenges of climate change.

Finally, we need to get better at using that small footprint of land available to our cities and towns. Our population is expected to increase by 67% in the years ahead. How can we keep our cities and towns as great places to live while staying within tight community footprints so that we meet all the other expectations for our land base?

Our state and local governments, King County foremost among them, already are working to address these three big factors. But we’ll get further faster with the hard choices ahead if we agree on common guideposts. Luckily, the basics are not rocket science. Just think preserve, conserve and make the best of the rest.

Preserve the sacred. Our remaining old growth, wetlands and estuaries underpin our ecological health and biodiversity. It’s no mystery where these lands are located. There are more than 150,000 acres in central Puget Sound right now under threat that should be preserved outright and should be of the highest priority for open space funding. They should be stewarded for their ecological productivity alongside the thousands of acres already safely protected.

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Conserve the needed. Private working forests and farms, and rural lands, need to be conserved — left alone to just do what they do now — growing food and fiber. Sustainably managed, they provide far more than just their economic contribution. It’s the stuff scientists call ecosystem services and what makes this place a pleasure to live in; clean air and water, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration are just a few. There are more than 600,000 acres of these lands in central Puget Sound. With thousands of acres already protected by government and nonprofit action, we should aim to conserve a critical mass, upward to 90% of the most valuable lands. Market strategies such as transferable development rights and revenue-backed bond financing are two of the tools to get this done.

Make the very best of the rest. Once we have protected our sacred natural places and needed working landscapes, the rest should be for our cities and towns. Here it’s all about making great communities, and it “ain’t rocket science.” Plainly speaking, there are six ingredients for quality communities:

 • A range of housing options in all neighborhoods.

• Access to family wage jobs close to home.

• Great schools and educational opportunities.

• Safety and security in our neighborhoods.

• A variety of public-transportation choices.

• Museums, parks and civic places in a great regional setting.

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Taking care of these basics provides the canvas for great communities. And, of course, they must be welcoming to all of us, regardless of where we hail from or the thickness of our wallet.

There it is. Conserve, preserve and make the best of the rest. Guideposts to make sure this place stays the great Pacific Northwest. So as we face the hard choices ahead, let’s first agree on the guideposts, the overarching framework to move us forward. So we all understand and can aim toward our future together.

Correction: An earlier version of this story, originally published July 26, misidentified the photographer of the lead photo of Kitsap County forest land. The photo was taken by Brian Kilpatrick.