Published September 13, 2012
Soundings: Death of People for Puget Sound sets mission adriftJOHN DODGE
All reporters, columnists and editorial page editors have their list of “go-to” sources they can rely on when shaping their stories, columns and editorials. For me, the Seattle-based environmental group known as People for Puget Sound has been a mainstay resource on all three journalistic fronts for more than 20 years, a voice for the water, watersheds and marine life struggling to survive in the Puget Sound basin in the face of population growth, habitat loss and pollution. The nonprofit watchdog group has never shied away from the politics of Puget Sound cleanup and recovery. Nor has it been afraid to advocate for important Puget Sound protections, whether it’s the stationing of a permanent rescue tug at Neah Bay to ward off potential oil spills or prodding the state Department of Ecology to adopt low-impact development standards to reduce stormwater runoff into Puget Sound, something the state agency finally did a few months ago. So the announcement this week that People for Puget Sound is disbanding this month because of financial problems conjured emotions of grief and loss – not on par with those associated with losing a friend, family member or faithful pet, but unsettling nevertheless. The immediate reaction to the news that People for Puget Sound is closing up shop seemed to land in two distinct camps; each includes former group employees and other advocates for a healthy Puget Sound. In one camp there are those who think the work of the group will be successfully absorbed by other environmental stewards. The official plan calls for shifting People for Puget Sound’s policy, advocacy and educational work over to the Washington Environmental Council. Restoration project would move to EarthCorps, a nonprofit affiliate of AmeriCorps dedicated to environmental service projects for young adults. “What we’ll see is a redoubled effort in the environmental community to protect Puget Sound,” suggested Bruce Wishart, a former People for Puget Sound legislative lobbyist. “The tremendous public support won’t stop or slow down; people truly care about clean water.” “People who cared about Puget Sound cleanup and recovery on Monday didn’t stop caring on Wednesday,” added Emmett O’Connell, a spokesman for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. In another camp are those who think the loss of People for Puget Sound could be a setback for cleanup and recovery efforts. They note that the state agency that oversees Puget Sound cleanup, the Puget Sound Partnership, seems to lack focus and purpose compared with the original Puget Sound Water Quality Authority. And Chris Gregoire, the governor who embraced the goal of a clean and healthy Puget Sound by 2020, leaves office at the end of the year with the job far from complete. Just how committed either gubernatorial candidate is to making Puget Sound recovery a top priority isn’t clear. “It’s a really spooky time for Puget Sound right now,” said Mike Sato, a Bellingham-based public-relations consultant who was among the five people who formed People for Puget Sound in 1991. “People for Puget Sound served an important, non-governmental role,” noted Bill Dewey, public-affairs director for Taylor Shellfish Farms. “Its loss will create a gap that will be hard to fill.” I’d have to agree with the second camp that sees the glass half-empty, not half-full. Sure, the Washington Environmental Council is a venerable environmental group. But its mission is multi-faceted and statewide, lacking the single-minded purpose that People for Puget Sound brought to the table. The EarthCorps is a great program for young adults 18-25. But where will all the older volunteers that were attracted to People for Puget Sound restoration projects fit in? From its modest beginning in 1991, People for Puget Sound grew by 2010 to a nonprofit with 28 full-time employees, a $2.4 million annual budget and 10,000 members from Olympia to Bellingham. Then, in summer 2011, its founder and longtime executive director, Kathy Fletcher, retired. At the time, she described the organization as strong and sustainable, not dependent on her charismatic leadership. One year later, one has to wonder just how strong the nonprofit was when Fletcher set sail to her remote waterfront cabin in British Columbia’s Desolation Sound. In an interview with the Kitsap Sun’s longtime environmental reporter Chris Dunagan this week, Tom Bancroft, the former vice president of the National Audubon Society and Fletcher’s successor, suggested that the Puget Sound environmental group grew faster than recession-strapped revenues could sustain from 2007 to mid-2011. Even two rounds of layoffs weren’t enough to make up for dwindling cash reserves, lackluster results from a spring fundraiser, shrinking membership donations and reduced financial support from foundations, Bancroft told Dunagan. Sato agreed these are tough financial times for nonprofits and businesses alike. But he questions whether Bancroft and the current board explored all their options before throwing in the towel. “I’m disappointed because those of us who loved and cared for People for Puget Sound were never asked to help in the past year, never consulted, never told how bad the situation had become,” Sato blogged Wednesday. “And I’m sad because Puget Sound will no longer have a watchdog and advocate focused on the Sound’s well being.” Me too.