Hope required for the hard environmental realities of our time

“I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same. That’s what I believe in.”

— Billy Frank Jr.

When Billy Frank Jr. passed in 2014, we lost one of the great Native American civil rights leaders of our time. To our great fortune, Billy left us with a legacy of hope for the Puget Sound region and all of its natural resources.

Finding that hope in 2017 was challenging — especially for those of us who care deeply about our unique ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest. But it’s our responsibility to see how healthy we really are. There have been plenty of troubling warning signs:

▪ 235 million gallons of untreated wastewater flowed into Puget Sound during a rainstorm in February after a failure at the West Point Treatment Plant in Seattle.

▪ Radioactive waste continues to cause havoc at the Hanford site. A tunnel collapse reminded us how vulnerable the nuclear facility is.

▪ Chinook and steelhead salmon continue to struggle. Destructive dams combined with climate change and warmer waters have scientists increasingly warning of the inevitable extinction of steelhead, our official state fish.

▪ A 2-year-old orca whale starved to death in September — the seventh to die in Puget Sound in 2017 — reducing the population to a 30-year low. Only 76 remain as several species battle for the dwindling number of chinook.

▪ More studies confirmed what we already know: Toxic fluids dripping off our cars are killing coho salmon. The sludge is so deadly scientists say it can kill an adult coho within 24 hours.

▪ More than 100,000 farmed Atlantic salmon escaped when a poorly maintained net pen collapsed off Cypress Island. The non-native species have been found 40 miles up the Skagit River.

▪ Thanks to great local reporters, we learned that the pacific marten has seemingly disappeared from wilderness areas in the Olympic Mountains. Scientists aren’t sure why, but think climate change and loss of habitat may be the culprits.

▪ Extreme weather was common — we had the wettest fall-winter-spring on record, followed by 56 days without rain, another record. Ash and smoke from forest fires filled neighborhoods west of the Cascades for the first time anyone can remember.

▪ In Washington D.C., we’ve seen an assault on scientific facts as the new administration works to roll back environmental protections.

▪ And here in Olympia, our state’s precious water resources are under assault by Republicans intent on ignoring the law and blocking construction of essential infrastructure across the state.

While our challenges can seem overwhelming at times, we also have several reasons for hope:

▪ The Elwha River continues to return to its natural state following the removal of its dam in 2014. The resilience of this ecosystem is inspiring and will be for years to come as we see salmon and other species return.

▪ Wolves continue to recover and their range is spreading west and south from northeast Washington.

▪ Our state leaders have rightly declined a permit for a proposed coal terminal in Southwest Washington that would have led to increased pollution and degraded human health.

▪ Several important cleanups have been completed around the state — with many featuring successful tribal-state partnerships, like the efforts to restore Port Gamble Bay on the Kitsap Peninsula.

▪ Gov. Inslee has taken significant steps to decrease pollution emitted into our air and waterways through executive actions.

▪ In December, a critical advisory panel recommended that the governor deny the permit for a massive oil terminal in Vancouver, protecting residents from air pollution, safety risks, odor and noise.

Taken together, these milestones offer examples to emulate and examples to avoid. How well we fare will rest on what we learn from our past mistakes. Our corner of the world and its health is a reflection of our values.

The governor’s 2018 budget includes funding to help turn the tide on many of our environmental challenges, including nearly $9 million for whale recovery. Oil spill prevention and forest health efforts also are included in the proposal. We also expect to hear details on a new tool to curb carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

With Democrats in control of the state House and Senate for the first time in five years, there is momentum for progress in the New Year.

And like Billy, we can never lose hope.

State Senator John McCoy, D-Tulalip, represents the 38th Legislative District and is a Tulalip Tribe citizen.