The state Legislature will need to make a long-term funding commitment to pay for more culvert replacements that harm our state’s salmon runs.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the state of Washington must replace hundreds of road culverts that block salmon passage. The decision was the culmination of decades of argument over the state’s responsibility to protect salmon runs under treaties signed with Washington tribes.
The court’s ruling provides clarity about the state’s role in fixing the culverts, but there already has been extensive work to repair culverts in Washington, and there will be many more years of work to come.
As part of the 1999 Forests & Fish Law, forest landowners in Washington — both private landowners (which I represent) and state forestland managers — have removed 7,300 fish passage barriers since 2001 across 9.3 million acres. These landowners have spent $313 million opening up 5,100 miles of fish habitat. Private and state forest landowners are 84 percent done with their goal and are on track to clear all the fish passage barriers in forested streams by 2021.
We’ve learned a lot along the way about what works.
Everyone must do their part: The Supreme Court ruling involved more than 800 state-owned highway culverts in Western Washington. There are more than 4,000 county and city roads blocking salmon that connect to the same streams in the Supreme Court case and need repair. The court’s ruling was just a slice of a larger and more complex issue. Public and private landowners across the state must commit to fixing culverts and helping salmon.
Collaboration works: Washington forest landowners have fixed thousands of culverts as part of the Forests & Fish Law, a historic agreement between federal, state, tribal and county governments, and private forest landowners. All of the parties agreed on a set of forest practices that provide fish habitat and water quality protection on 60,000 miles of forested streams running through 9.3 million acres of state and private forestland. It was a new day for forestry, pushing aside the outdated industry practices of the past. And instead of arguing the issue in court, we sat at the table on an agreement that is paying dividends for the environment and for landowners by improving their road systems.
Salmon are the thing: This is about something much deeper than a legal decision. Salmon are an integral part of Washington’s culture, spirit and identity — it is our collective responsibility to protect them. And yet the number of salmon in Washington continues to decline. There are many reasons for this decline, but improving water quality and fixing the tens of thousands of fish blocking culverts in Washington are part of the solution.
Progress is being made. The state Department of Transportation alone has completed 319 fish-passage barrier corrections, allowing access to about 1,032 miles of potential upstream habitat. Culverts are being fixed on city and county roads through the state’s Fish Barrier Removal Board and by small forest landowners through the Family Forest Fish Passage Program. These are problems we know how to solve and are important steps in improving the health of one of our state’s most precious natural resources.
We have a shared responsibility to address the health of our salmon and waterways. It is a mission too important and too complex for our state’s wide range of landowners to work against each other or to not coordinate our efforts. On the funding side, the Legislature needs to make a long-term infrastructure investment to address the problem. All landowners working together, with long-term state funding, is the best path to success.