People for Puget Sound is closing its doors, ending a more than 20-year run for the nonprofit.

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To the distress of supporters and former staff, People for Puget Sound, the nonprofit that just last year celebrated its 20th anniversary, has announced it is shutting down for good at the end of the month.

The nonprofit was a civic voice for Puget Sound and helped shepherd a high tide of change for the region’s most signature body of saltwater.

Whether it was legislation to get a rescue tug permanently stationed near the state’s outer coast to respond to oil spills; or petitioning for endangered-species protection for orcas; or regulations to restrain pollution and shoreline development or habitat restoration, People for Puget Sound was on the front lines.

Started in 1991, the organization at its peak had 25 staff members from Mount Vernon to Olympia, and more than 9,000 member households. But the recession ate steadily at the organization’s budget, which had operating deficits for the past four years, said Tom Bancroft, executive director. By the end of the last fiscal year, the deficit had reached $700,000 on a $2.5 million budget. “It scared me to death,” Bancroft said.

He already had slashed staff to 11 positions last year. “But it was too little, too late,” said Bill Derry, president of the nonprofit’s board, which in July decided to investigate closing the organization down, but continuing its programs at two other nonprofits: the Washington Environmental Council (WEC) and EarthCorps.

The boards of the three nonprofits are continuing to meet to discuss transferring money and staff to continue the work of People for Puget Sound at the two entities, Derry said.

Nothing is finalized, but the idea is that EarthCorps would pick up habitat-restoration work, and WEC would take up the organization’s policy, lobbying and education work, housing them under the People for Puget Sound name within WEC.

Some of the nonprofit’s longest supporters say continuing its work through other groups is possible.

“There are all sorts of potential benefits from this; I am optimistic,” said Denis Hayes, president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, which helped get People for Puget Sound started, perennially supported its work — and will continue to, Hayes said.

But some of those close to the organization were dismayed. “I am shocked, I am sad at the decision to dissolve People for Puget Sound, and I strongly believe this did not need to happen,” said Kathy Fletcher, founder and executive director of the nonprofit until her retirement last year.

She and others said there was no broad appeal before pulling the plug. “I don’t remember anything in the community to say, ‘Hey, we have to save this.’ Where was that reaching out? That didn’t happen,” said Lisa Jaguzny, executive director today at the Campion Foundation, and formerly chief financial officer for 11 years at People for Puget Sound. “Where did the money go? When I left there was a million dollars in the bank and a couple of months of cash on hand and strong relationships with funders.”

Bancroft said the organization ate through the reserve account and fundraising results were disappointing — so much so that he didn’t see the viability of an emergency appeal, which also didn’t address long-term need.

“We thought, do you try to sneak across the ice and get to the other side or can we save the mission. We decided to save the mission.” And that, the board decided, meant parceling out the nonprofit’s work to other groups.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.