Celebrate Puget Sound with one of its advocates

It's not quite a victory tour, because the war on Puget Sound pollution, habitat loss and species decline is daunting and ongoing.

But when People for Puget Sound executive director Kathy Fletcher, 61, sails into Olympia tomorrow aboard the schooner Adventuress, she and her faithful followers will have plenty of reasons to feel good about the Puget Sound cleanup and protection work they’ve accomplished since Fletcher formed the nonprofit group 20 years ago.

In a phone interview from her Seattle office, which she is methodically cleaning out in advance of her retirement at the end of June, Fletcher took time to reflect on more than 25 years working on behalf of a healthier Puget Sound.

Before forming People for Puget Sound in 1991, she was the first chairwoman of the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, which was created in 1985 as the first state agency to oversee Puget Sound protection and cleanup.

She’s someone I’ve turned to countless times for comments, quotes and conversation about Puget Sound issues of the day, whether it was efforts to recover chinook salmon and orcas, habitat-restoration projects, the politics of Puget Sound recovery or the persistent threat of urban stormwater runoff flowing into Puget Sound.

In the years we’ve been talking – me, the reporter, and she, the insightful, usually candid source – our children turned from toddlers to young adults, our hair went from jet-black to gray, and another 1.5 million people moved to the shorelines and watersheds of Puget Sound.

When she pulls back from frontline advocacy work on behalf of the Sound, chances are she’ll be difficult to find much of the time, enjoying with her husband – Seattle environmental attorney Ken Weiner – time spent sailing and raising oysters on their remote waterfront property and cabin in British Columbia’s Desolation Sound.

“I’ll still be in the Salish Sea – just the very north end of it,” Fletcher said, referring to the name U.S. and Canadian authorities bestowed collectively upon Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca in 2009.

In what I jokingly referred to as her exit interview, here’s some of the ground we covered the other day.

Puget Sound hasn’t suffered from a major oil spill. Has that been due to blind luck or steps we’ve taken to prevent one?

“We certainly have increased our oil-spill prevention,” Fletcher said, referring to the decision by the Legislature – prompted by People for Puget Sound and other voices – to place a rescue tug full time at Neah Bay near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. “On the other hand, disaster could strike tomorrow.”

What are some of the biggest gains in the fight to recover Puget Sound?

“Some of the large-scale habitat-restoration projects are amazing, including the Nisqually Delta estuary-restoration project and the decision to remove the Elwha River Dam,” she said. She also mentioned improved shoreline protection by cities and counties, preservation of Maury Island and creation of aquatic reserves in Puget Sound, including those proposed by People for Puget Sound around Smith, Minor and Protection islands.

Incidentally, the Adventuress will be anchored overnight near the mouth of the Nisqually River, giving those aboard a chance to marvel at the nearly 800 acres of recovered estuary that had been diked off and farmed for more than 100 years.

What have been some of the biggest setbacks?

“We’ve had a lot of bad news about Puget Sound in the past 25 years. Back in the 1980s, we thought the orca whale population was coming back, but that hasn’t been the case. There’s a whole lot of species in decline. I feel like the health of the Puget Sound ecosystem is very, very precarious – hanging by a thread.”

What’s an example of a threat to Puget Sound that wasn’t even on your radar screen 20 years ago?

“Climate change and ocean acidification were not on our minds 20 years ago; it’s a huge issue,” she said.

The Puget Sound Water Quality Authority was dismantled by the Legislature, partly because it was perceived by those with business ties as too aggressive. It was followed by the Puget Sound Action Team and the Puget Sound Partnership.

Which has worked the best, or could have worked the best?

“The fact we’ve had three government agencies to oversee Puget Sound cleanup is evidence how politically difficult it is to get the desire, the funding and the regulations moving in sync,” Fletcher said, not answering the question directly. “The three (desire, funding and regulations) have never really come together.”

From its modest beginning, People for Puget Sound has grown into the moral compass steering the Puget Sound cleanup and protection effort. It has grown from five to 28 full-time employees and a $2.4 million budget in 2010, including a $1 million cash reserve, thanks to the donors and 10,000 Puget Sound household members.

“The organization is strong and sustainable,” Fletcher said. “We put Puget Sound first, and we’ve never stumbled.”

Joining Fletcher and others on the 2011 Sound Voyage is Tom Bancroft, the incoming executive director. While he doesn’t have roots in the Puget Sound area, he has a strong background as chief scientist and vice president of the National Audubon Society and former vice president of the Wilderness Society.

Finally, I asked Fletcher, if she could go back 20 years, would she still dedicate her most productive adult years to a group such as People for Puget Sound. The answer was a resounding “yes.”

“It’s been a privilege and joy spending my working life working on Puget Sound,” she said.

Sound Voyage 2011 will host a community celebration from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Monday at Phoenix Inn, 415 Capitol Way N., Olympia. Stop by and meet Fletcher, Bancroft and some of the South Sound residents who have worked hard to keep saving Puget Sound a high-profile goal.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444