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Friday, June 15, 2012

A Dam Proposal on the Skykomish River?

Map of the Proposed Dam Site,
from the Seattle Times
A recent Seattle Times article discussed a controversial proposal by Snohomish County Public Utility District (SnoPUD) to build a new dam along Highway 2, on the South Fork Skykomish River, near the scenic town of Index, Washington.

Proponents estimate the dam will generate enough power for 10,000 homes in the area and tout the green energy of hydropower. The controversy, however, lies in the impact that a dam would have on salmon and other fish, paddling and other recreation, and the free-flowing nature of one of the most beloved rivers in the Puget Sound. An additional concern is the intent to add hydropower requiring a new dam on a free-flowing river, rather than upgrading or adding hydropower capacity on existing structures.

Photo by Tom O'Keefe
The Skykomish River runs from Stevens Pass to the Puget Sound, and is known for its outstanding beauty, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunity. The Sunset Falls Hydroelectric Project, as it is known, would be placed on the South Fork Skykomish and consist of a piece of steel placed atop a inflatable 55-foot wide weir that could stand as tall as 8 feet when fully inflated. SnoPUD would also have to build a powerhouse on the north side of Sunset Falls. The dam would also be able to lie on top of the water during times of insignificant water flow.

The South Fork Skykomish is a well-decorated river. It has been designated as a State Scenic Waterway, listed as a Northwest Power and Conservation Council Protected Area, and recommended for federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River by the U.S. Forest Service. According to opponents, the dam proposal would reduce two of the rivers most iconic waterfalls – Canyon Falls and Sunset Falls – to a trickle, and severely impact fish and wildlife habitat, water quality and quantity, recreation, and aesthetic values. 

“This proposal flies in the face of Washington state Scenic Rivers law, and the intent to protect one of the last free-flowing rivers in our state,” said Steve Starlund, of Washington State Parks, in the Seattle Times article.

A group of eight conservation and recreation organizations, including Washington Wild, sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to intervene and stop permitting for the Sunset Falls project. In that letter, they site the substantial environmental impacts and minimal power generation. The project may also not be economically feasible. Previous developers have applied for a permit to dam the South Fork Skykomish, only to find that the river flows would not generate significant electricity.

"It's just one of those truly majestic, magical places that really define our region. So many rivers have experienced industrial development, and this is one that has not. To put in at the base of Sunset Falls is a unique and special experience, and the thought of blasting those rocks to me frankly is sacrilegious." said Tom O'Keefe, Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director of American Whitewater, in the Seattle Times article.

Photo by Tom O'Keefe
The local community and environmental groups are not opposed to all hydropower generation; rather, they want to see it done in a way that minimizes the impact to the natural environment. In fact, hydropower generation in Washington State can be significantly expanded without having to build any new dams whatsoever! According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, making efficiency improvements and adding hydro to existing water storage dams can greatly increase the amount of power available to Washingtonians.

To learn more about the Sunset Falls Dam project, watch this YouTube video.

The Sunset Falls Dam is not the only small hydropower project threatening some of our last remaining free flowing rivers and streams in the Cascades. A renewed emphasis on alternative energy sources, including hydropower, has sparked a “gold rush” for new small hydro development opportunities in our backcountry streams and rivers. In the very same watershed of the proposed Sunset Falls Dam, there are additional permit applications for upstream tributaries including – Martin Creek and Barclay Creek. And recently, the first new dam in 20 years was built on Youngs Creek, which is a tributary to the main stem of the Skykomish River.

Elsewhere in the central Cascades, there is a proposed dam project on the North Fork of the Snoqualmie river, which has been found eligible and partly recommended for designation as a Wild and Scenic River by the U.S. Forest Service. The Black Canyon Dam Project poses many of the same issues as the Sunset Falls Dam project, as a result is knee deep in controversy

Next Tuesday, June 19, there will meetings held in North Bend to discuss the Black Canyon Dam. Please consider attending and voicing your concerns about the project.

Meeting Details: 

Date and Time: Tuesday, June 19, 2012, Moring Scoping Meeting – 11:00 a.m. and the Evening Scoping Meeting – 6:00pm.

Virtual Site Review
Date and Time: Tuesday, June 19, 2012, 2:00 p.m.

Location for all meetings:
Cedar River Watershed Education Center Auditorium,
19901 Cedar Falls Road SE, North Bend, WA  98045

More background information can be found here:

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rafting the Middle Fork

After five years working to develop, refine, and gain support for a proposal to protect additions to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River protections for the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers, the day had finally arrived: I was going to see the forests and rivers I had spent so much time mapping and arguing for, from the most intimate vantage point possible – by raft.

The invitation came from a colleague, Thomas O’Keefe, a Ph.D. and a river ecologist and paddling enthusiast, who also happens to be the regional staff member for American Whitewater. I have worked with O’Keefe on the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and rivers bill (now moving through Congress) closely for the past five years, but this was the first opportunity to raft the Middle Fork with him. I jumped at the chance.

Two other colleagues, Sarah Krueger, from The Mountaineers, and Cynthia Wilkerson, from The Wilderness Society, joined me as we put in the 14-foot inflatable raft about a half mile north of the confluence between the Taylor River and the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River.  The river was running somewhat low - about 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs)- but we had few problems with rocks.  In general, the raftable range of the river is between 1,500 cfs and 6,000 cfs.

Tom Uniack (front) and Tom O'Keefe
Within a few minutes, I found myself looking over at the Middle Fork Trail on the south bank of the river.  You could barely make out that there was a trail winding along the bank under old-growth trees. The view from the river was such a different perspective: without evidence of trails, roads, or people, we could have been in western Montana or southeast Alaska. In fact, we were just an hour outside of downtown Seattle.

A few minutes later, we passed under the striking arched trail bridge, which, as I understand from my colleague Rick McGuire, was designed by the same architect that built Seattle’s King Dome. Rick is one of the most passionate advocates for this area, and has been critically involved in just about every major conservation achievement in the Middle Fork Valley.

Passing the arched bridge, I could make out the new Pratt Connector Trail, currently under construction by the Forest Service, with significant volunteer support from Washington Trails Association.  When completed, the trail will offer hiking access to the seldom explored Pratt River Valley – the heart of the 22,000 acre Wilderness proposal introduced by Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Dave Reichert.

With a holler from our rafting guide, we began to paddle forward toward the Taylor Rapid. A shot of adrenaline drew me away from the scenic vista for what turned out to be just a class 2 rapid.  We bumped our way through the whitewater and floated with the current. Pulling our oars in the boat, we looked back at a stunning view of the Garfield Balconies, a set of sheer cliffs rising straight up above the winding river.

Preacher Mtn, above Middle Fork Snoqualmie River
Further down the river, we saw our first wildlife, small Least Sandpipers flying along the bank flashing their white marked wings and peeping as they took flight. Later we came across two Common Mergansers, striking river ducks with white, green, and orange outfits that live in river currents. I remember hiking along this river many times, and have never seen so many birds as from the side of our raft.

About a half hour into our float, our guide, O’Keefe, yells out for us to row forward as we approach a larger rapid – the Rainy Creek Rapid. He maneuvers the raft around several large rocks as spray falls on us like rain. What a thrill!

Further down the river, we pause to watch more wildlife that we likely would have missed from road or trail. An American Dipper walked along a log, bobbing its hindquarters. This bird is a drab brown in appearance but actually walks underwater in fast currents to get at its food. Overhead a Belted Kingfisher, a flash of blue and white, flies over making a KKKK-KKKKK call. 

Once we reached the Pratt River confluence, we pulled the raft ashore and ventured up the Pratt River Valley, which is currently only accessible by boat or hiking trail through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness from I-90. Just a few hundred yards up the river, large old-growth trees were obvious in the middle of the valley. This forgotten wild valley is the heart of the 22,000 acre Wilderness proposal currently in Congress. 

Old-growth forest, Pratt River Valley
As we pulled out of the river several minutes later, we got one last look at Russian Butte, a striking peak still flaunting snow that marks the western edge of the Wilderness proposal.
After packing up the raft and shuttling the car parked at our entry location, we headed home. Even though the Middle Fork Road had been recently graded, the ten-mile, unpaved route makes for a long and bumpy ride. There is no doubt that the quality of the road limits the number and diversity of people that come up to enjoy this incredible place. However, as part of a twenty-year effort to improve recreational infrastructure in the Valley, that is about to change for the better, as chronicled in a recent Seattle Times story.

By 1990, facilities in the valley had deteriorated and fallen into disrepair.  Undesirable elements had moved into the valley: wild shooting and garbage dumping reached epidemic proportions, squatters occupied some areas illegally, and at least one major meth lab operated.  Vandalism was rife, and recreationists were discouraged from visiting the valley because of concern for cars left parked at trailheads, and danger from shooters' bullets.  The valley had deteriorated into a "mountain slum."

This was an intolerable situation.  The Middle Fork Snoqualmie is a spectacular valley, the kind of place that would have been a National Park.  Facing this situation, a number of concerned citizens  fed up with these problems, were determined to "take back" the valley from the undesirable elements and develop its great, but woefully under-used, recreational potential.  A group calling itself the Middle Fork Outdoor Recreation Coalition, or "MidFORC,"   began working in cooperation with land management agencies and political leaders to "turn around" the valley, and make it safe for recreationists. 

Perhaps the most prominent face of that effort was Mark Boyar, a Jefferson Award winner for his efforts to bring together local stakeholders to develop a twenty-year vision for the Valley.  This vision included consolidating land into public ownership, increasing enforcement, new recreational facilities like the Middle Fork Campground, identifying new trails, decommissioning old spur roads leading to the river, establishing dispersed camping opportunities, and paving the Middle Fork Road.  More recently, Mark has waged a war on invasive species and noxious weeds, particularly near the Pratt River confluence, to ecologically restore the valley.

While I cannot offer to take you down the Middle Fork in a raft, if you are interested in more history, anecdotes and information about this incredible place and what is being done to protect and enhance it, join us on Wednesday June 13 at 7:00 pm at the Mountaineers. You can view slides and hear presentations and discussion from myself, Tom O’Keefe, Rick McGuire, and Mark Boyar, among others.

Click here to find out how to attend the Alpine Lakes: Wilderness in Our Backyard event. It’s free!

Tom Uniack has served as the Conservation Director for Washington Wild since 2003. When he is not working to protect Washington s wild lands and waters, he is spending time with his wife and three young children. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Marbled Murrelets: An Old Growth-Dependent Species in Danger

 I just finished my undergraduate thesis, Marbled Murrelets: Mysteries & Management, on the political and economic challenges of preserving marbled murrelets. As a student at the University of Washington, it was a great opportunity for my course work to connect with my work as the membership assistant at Washington Wild.

Marbled Murrelet
The marbled murrelet is a robin-sized seabird native to the Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada. Its habit of feeding in the ocean but nesting in old-growth forests makes it one of the most unique species in our region. It also puts the species at great risk. Though about 220,000 individuals live in Alaska, their population has declined by as much as 50% since the 1980s.

Old-growth forests

Marbled murrelet populations in California, Oregon and Washington were listed as threatened (i.e., “likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future”) on the Endangered Species Act in 1992. They have been known to nest in old growth forests within Olympic National Park, Olympic National Forest, and the San Juan Islands. Unfortunately, marbled murrelet populations continue to fall 4-6% annually in our region. Although surveys in the 1930s estimated their population to be in the hundreds of thousands south of Canada, currently only 16,700 individuals survive in California, Oregon and Washington.

The two most important reasons for marbled murrelet decline are habitat loss and increased predation. Both are results of human activity. Logging still destroys a significant amount of old growth forest each year, although it has been significantly curtailed since the 1980s. According to the Forest Service, more than 400,000 acres of old growth trees were logged in the past decade.

However, marbled murrelets have been declining faster than old growth, indicating that other factors also play a role. The most important of these is increased predation, especially by corvids (jays, crows, and ravens). While these birds do not usually venture into old growth, they will follow campers and hikers into these areas if they provide food. Once in old growth, they spot helpless murrelet chicks and eat them. Corvids also find chicks when murrelets nest near the edges of old growth, as might be created when the trees around an old growth stand are logged. Combined with habitat loss, predation makes it almost impossible for marbled murrelets to reproduce.

Marbled murrelets need to be protected in our area. Though some cite their relatively large population in Alaska as a reason to remove the marbled murrelet from the ESA for its California to Washington range, biologists have identified the unique ecological niche the bird occupies as an important reason to work to preserve it. Additionally, there appear to be several subspecies of marbled murrelet in our region. This indicates the marbled murrelets in one area might not be able to recolonize an area they were forced to abandon even if it again became healthy habitat because murrelets need specific adaptations for each area. The population as a whole might not be able to recover if genetic diversity was lost by regional extinctions.

Finally, we’ve only begun to understand the mysteries of the marbled murrelet; for example, humans only discovered its nest in 1974. To lose a creature we know so little about would be a tragedy. As Edward O. Wilson says, “We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.”

Washington Wild’s efforts to protect old growth forests as wilderness also protect marbled murrelet’s habitat. Most of the marbled murrelets in our state are clustered around the Olympic Peninsula. As a founding member of the Wild Olympics Campaign, Washington Wild works with other organizations to protect low-elevation forest lands as Wilderness. Aside from offering world-class recreation opportunities and providing clean water, these forests are the most important to the continued survival of marbled murrelets in the state. In order to remain productive homes for marbled murrelets, these lands need to be permanently preserved in their natural state. To read more about the Wild Olympics Campaign and sign the petition, please click here. With your support, we can ensure marbled murrelets can call the Olympic Peninsula home for decades to come!

 Cat Moore is Washington Wild’s membership assistant. She will be graduating from the University of Washington with a Bachelors in Political Science and Economics next week. When not in the office, you can find Cat studying for the LSAT, playing in the woods, or drinking decaf lattes.