Why Cut Salmon Recovery Budget?by Todd Myers
Tri-City Herald, February 25, 2019
Chinook salmon population is below its 2020 target and not improving
With more than $6 billion in new state revenue projected for the next biennium, Washington state has the resources to prioritize salmon recovery.
Last week, we were joined by other salmon advocates in Western Washington asking state budget writers to increase funding for salmon recovery projects by $125.8 million -- about two percent of the increased revenue over the next two years.
Last week the new revenue forecast was released, indicating the state expects revenue collections to be "$153.6 million (2.9 percent) above the November forecast." This new projection alone covers more than our request for additional salmon recovery funding.
The reason we made this request is that despite one of the largest increases in state revenue -- without new taxes -- the level of proposed funding for salmon recovery is actually lower than four years ago.
This failure to support salmon recovery comes at a time when salmon recovery efforts are even more critical. According to the Puget Sound Partnership's Vital Signs, the Chinook salmon population is below its 2020 target and not improving. The plight of the Southern-resident Killer Whales is dramatic evidence of that failure.
As the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office's recent "State of the Salmon" report notes, "In most of the state, salmon numbers are below recovery goals."
It is rare for me to propose increasing government spending. In this case, however, I think it is justified for a few reasons.
First, the need is real. There is no partisan split on the desire to recover salmon. From sport and commercial fishers, to environmental activists, tribes, and those who enjoy some nice smoked salmon, there is wide agreement on the need to improve salmon populations.
Second, the funding request is relatively small but meaningful. If salmon recovery is a priority, now is the time to act. The need is obvious and there is a huge increase in state revenue. This spending does not preclude a sales tax cut, or other funding other state priorities.
Finally, my consistent frustration with environmental spending is that it is politically driven and often unrelated to science-based priorities. In the case of salmon recovery funding, there is a serious and science-based prioritization process that guides funding.
In the case of the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund (PSAR), the ranking is heavily based on scientific metrics. These existing metrics are now being refined using science called the Salmon Benefit Index that has been successfully used in the Columbia Basin.
The contrast between science and politics is particularly stark in the Governor's budget. Although Governor Inslee has proposed spending $750,000 for yet another government panel on the Snake River Dams, his budget does not fund one of the science-based priorities on the PSAR list that would cost $800,000 and directly protect salmon habitat.
This overall prioritization system is not perfect, and I have raised concerns about some aspects of the process, but it is superior to other ways we spend environmental funding where there is little focus on results and little or no accountability for failure.
One concern that is raised about some salmon recovery projects is that it expands the amount of state-owned land.
I share this concern and dealt with it when I was at the state Department of Natural Resources. In many cases, however, there is a willing buyer and seller, and the owner of the land wants the land protected. It seems odd to tell the owner of property who wants it protected that they can't use the land the way they want or sell it to whom they want.
There isn't an easy answer to this, and we should be careful about the amount of land the state owns without creating an absolute prohibition.
Ultimately, if we cannot commit to increasing our salmon recovery efforts in a biennium when we are seeing such an enormous increase in revenue, we never will.
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