Salish Sea love letter (and a call to action)

Richard Walker

Authors of ‘We Are Puget Sound’ hope to spur people to the front lines of protecting the health of these marine waters

The place that the Indigenous peoples knew as Whulge – today’s Puget Sound and Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest – was shaped by several millennia of geological change.

For thousands of years, Ice Age glaciers scoured and carved, leaving bluffs and valleys and islands in their retreat. Creation took place here: the Klallam people emerged on the Elwha River; the Lummi, Saanich and Songhees, in the San Juan Islands; the Cowichan, at the place known today as Mount Prevost on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. There are many others.

For thousands of years, giant cedars provided the people with logs for ocean- and seagoing canoes, wood for longhouses and ceremonial objects, and fiber for clothing and baskets. The saltwater teemed with salmon and halibut, the beaches with shellfish. The people maintained prairies where they grew camas and other edible bulbs.

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The Salish Sea coastline

It took less than a century to undo nature’s work and thousands of years of Indigenous caretaking.

Water temperatures in streams are warming because of logging of shade-producing trees. High-altitude glaciers are rapidly retreating and one – Anderson Glacier in the Olympic Mountains – is no more. The industrialized Duwamish River is a Superfund cleanup site. Stormwater washes pollution into streams and bays from city streets. Shoreline armoring has restricted the natural movement of sediments and eliminated habitat for forage fish.

We are losing salmon habitat faster than it can be recovered, the late Nisqually environmental warrior Billy Frank Jr. said. Wild salmon runs are gone from many rivers. As this is written, another Salish Sea killer whale is believed to have died and the population of the three Salish Sea pods – whose primary diet is chinook salmon  is at its lowest in more than 30 years.

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Beautiful imagery of Sea Anemone in the book

A new book, “We Are Puget Sound | Discovering & Recovering the Salish Sea,” provides a roadmap to recovering the health of these waters off the coast of inland Washington state and British Columbia, with inspirational stories of what individuals are doing – and essays and photographs that remind the reader of what’s at stake.

“Through exploitation and innocent neglect, we have made a mess, and together we have to clean it up,” Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman and People for Puget Sound director Mindy Roberts wrote in a chapter of the book.

“We Are Puget Sound | Discovering & Recovering the Salish Sea,” was published on Oct. 1, 2019 by Braided River, an imprint of Mountaineers Books, in partnership with the Washington Environmental Council. (The companion website is located at www.wearepugetsound.org.)

Co-author David L. Workman said the book is “a love letter to Puget Sound” – and a call to action.

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“We Are Puget Sound | Discovering & Recovering the Salish Sea,” was published on Oct. 1, 2019 by Braided River

“Braided River, the Washington Environmental Council and all who participated in producing this book are hoping it makes a difference -- that people will be motivated to explore what they can do to work for the healthiest Puget Sound we can have,” he said.

The struggling health of the Puget Sound and Salish Sea is a subject with which Workman is very familiar, having served from 1989 to 2012 as communications director for state agencies on the front lines of improving the inland waters’ health – among them, the departments of Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources, and Ecology.

The book evolved from a discussion Workman and Brian Walsh -- a state environmental planner and award-winning photographer -- had in early 2016. The project took off in a way that indicated the need for such a book. (Indeed: the book’s publication was funded in part by the environmental council and numerous donors, whose names fill an acknowledgements page in the book).

Work on the book began that year, Workman said. Each interview led to another profile-worthy individual doing remarkable things to improve the health of sound and sea. Environmental advocates stepped forward to write chapter essays. Mountaineers accepted the book proposal in 2017 and the completed manuscript was submitted in June 2018.

“It’s the right book for the right time,” Workman said.

In the foreword, Martha Kongsgaard, former chairwoman of the leadership council of Puget Sound Partnership – established by Washington’s then-Gov. Christine Gregoire to oversee efforts to improve the sound’s health – tries to instill a sense of urgency in the book’s readers. “Let’s ask ourselves … what we would attempt, what we would safeguard and with what vigor, how we would live if we thought we couldn’t fail, if we thought this would be our last year on this implausibly beautiful blue-and-green planet.”

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Workman writes in the chapter, “Our Puget Sound,” of the geology that makes this place so spectacular – and the resources that have been taxed by carelessness, overuse and poor policy. In the chapters, “Extraordinary Nature” and “The Human Connection,” Workman writes about the humans and animals that live here and how they are all connected through the environment they share.

Retired Seattle Times outdoors editor Brian J. Cantwell highlights in the chapter “Exploring and Enjoying Puget Sound” some of the remarkable destinations that make this region unique and special.

Two maps are designed to help the reader understand the complexity of these connected waters: Puget Sound is a watershed that includes 2,500 miles of coastline -- extending from Olympia to the south, then northwest to the Strait of Juan de Fuca (which in turn leads to the Pacific Ocean), and north to the Strait of Georgia, which separates Vancouver Island from mainland British Columbia.

The Salish Sea, which includes Puget Sound, includes the entirety of the Strait of Georgia and its tributaries -- some 10,500 square miles of sea containing more than 400 islands, fjords and “a wide range of habitats, flora and fauna.”

A third map, “Tribes of the Salish Sea,” identifies the Indigenous nations and languages of the region. These indigenous nations often lead environmental protection efforts and with local, state and provincial governments of the region are co-managers of salmon and shellfish habitat. (“We recognize that the Salish Sea region are traditional and present-day homelands of many Indigenous Peoples and Tribal Nations,” the companion website states. “We acknowledge the place-based knowledge of these peoples, and are grateful for their ancestral and current stewardship of these lands.”)

Photographs by Walsh and more than 30 other photographers connect readers to aspects of sound and sea life with which they may not be overly familiar: Seals bask on a beach, an egret fishes in an estuary, snowy owls scuffle over a preferred resting place, a black bear naps on a log, sea urchins creep up to a sea star, black rockfish swim through a forest of bull kelp.

In other photographs, Raymond Moses, Tulalip, drums during the Tulalip Tribes’ First Salmon Ceremony, Coast Salish canoes line a Samish Nation beach during the 2019 Canoe Journey/Paddle to Lummi, a kayaker navigates a challenging river run, skiers enjoy breathtaking scenery on the slopes, farmers show off the bounty of their harvest, a child plays in a field of vibrant yellow tulips.

Many images are striking in their juxtapositions, as if to emphasize the daily threat to the health of the environment on which all depend: On one page, a coho salmon leaps up a waterfall; on the facing page, treated runoff drains from the Highway 520 bridge into Lake Washington. On another page, salmon are blocked from swimming upstream by the Elwha Dam, which has since been removed; on the next page, a photograph documents the plastic trash collected in one day on a beach in Port Angeles, near the mouth of the Elwha River. On another page, rain gardens installed in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood filter pollutants; on the next page, a great blue heron stands next to a drain from which untreated stormwater runoff pours into the beleaguered Duwamish River.

And then, there are stories of hope:

The Powel family of Bainbridge Island, across the sound from Seattle, who worked with a local land trust to remove more than 1,500 feet of shoreline armoring and plant more than 2,600 native plants above the beach.

Cassandra Houghton, who worked with fellow students to install rain gardens, a pervious concrete parking surface and a rainwater cistern at her school.

Tahmina Martelly of Seattle, who led a project to remove 22,000 square feet of asphalt and gravel and, in its place, plant a thriving cistern-irrigated vegetable garden.

Indigenous leaders like Sally Brownfield, Squaxin; Joseph Pavel, Skokomish; and former Port Gamble S’Klallam Chairman Ron Charles and his successor, Jeromy Sullivan, who have devoted their lives to improving the health of their native waters and lands -- to the benefit of their people and their non-Indigenous neighbors.

There are more stories, many more, and the authors hope readers will create their own stories of stewardship. On pages 160-161, readers can get spurred to action with “Ten Things You Can Do” – among them, voting for candidates that support policies that are good for the Puget Sound and Salish Sea; supporting environmentally sound businesses; and reducing personal vehicle use, being mindful of what goes down the drain or into the waste stream, and evaluating products used inside and outside the home.

As the co-authors write – and as the book illustrates in stunning, engaging and well-organized fashion – each resident of this region is the author of the next chapter in the life of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea.

“It’s up to each of us, the people of the Salish Sea,” Forsman and Roberts write, “to take action so that future generations can experience clean water, abundant salmon, resident orcas, and thriving communities.”

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Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a journalist living in Anacortes, Washington. He has written for Indian Country Today since January 2003. Follow him on Twitter @rawalkerjr, and LinkedIn richardarlinwalker. Email richardmollywalker@gmail.com

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