Today, Washington Wild coordinated a joint comment letter signed by 30 organizations to the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force. The task force was established earlier this year by Washington Governor Jay Inslee in response to the declining populations of southern resident killer whales in the Puget Sound region. The letter expressed the importance of protection of our federal public lands for the overall health and recovery of our resident Orca populations in Washington.
Federal lands, like our National Parks and National Forests, often include the headwaters of the Puget Sound and the Columbia Basin. The health of these federal forests and watersheds directly impacts the main food source for orcas – salmon. This iconic species is struggling to survive in the PNW and we’re at risk of losing them completely. Orcas desperately need improvements in the heath and abundance of their prey and their prey desperately need quality habitat. Neither orcas nor salmon can afford to have a deterioration of the intact and functioning watersheds that currently contribute to the existing population.
In addition to restoring salmon habitat, the letter emphasized that it is equally important to permanently protect intact functioning watersheds, headwaters and streams that are providing clean water and salmon populations. Many of these upper watersheds exist on federal lands. Federal lands are essential for the long-term health of our region. One of the best examples of how these healthy intact watersheds enhance and support our regional quality of life is the Puget Sound Basin. Cradled by iconic glacial peaks, Puget Sound is one of the largest and most ecologically diverse estuaries in the United States.
As a unique place where enclosed coastal salt waters meet and mix with cool, clean, fresh water, Puget Sound supports one of the most productive natural environments in the world. The source of this fresh water lies in the upper watersheds and low-elevation forests of the Cascade and Olympic Mountain Ranges. As these wild forests and rivers feed Puget Sound, they also support historically strong fish populations, our iconic resident orca whales, local farms and businesses, and clean and safe drinking water for millions of residents.
The letter encouraged the task force to support:
- Restoration Planning on National Forest Lands: Salmon recovery plans throughout Puget Sound and the Columbia Basin recognize the importance of improving conditions on our public lands in the upper reaches of our watersheds. One of the greatest needs is for the state to work collaboratively with the U.S. Forest Service to address the salmon recovery issues associated with a deteriorating road network. While we require roads to manage and access our public lands, many miles are unnecessary and are negatively impacting salmon habitat conditions. Roads can contribute sediment to our rivers; block fish passage; disconnect floodplains; and channel water more quickly off of the landscape.
- The Legacy Roads and Trails Program: To truly improve salmon habitat, these projects on federal land require funding. in 2008 LRT was established to fund urgently needed road decommissioning, road and trail repair and maintenance, and removal of fish passage barriers. Across the nation, this program has invested over $300 million on national forest lands, including throughout the Puget Sound and Columbia Basin, emphasizing areas where Forest Service roads may be contributing to water quality problems in streams and water bodies that support threatened, endangered, and sensitive species or community water sources.
- Federal policy and legislative proposals that maintain quality salmon habitat provided by headwaters and riparian forests: Watersheds protected by legislation and administrative policies ensure healthy stream and riparian habitat continue to support fish populations that contribute to orca recovery including:
- Legislation introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) that would permanently protect nearly two million acres of intact old growth forests and salmon spawning streams identified within the 2001 Roadless Rule.
- Legislation introduced by Senator patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA06) that would protect 126,000 acres of upper watershed in the Olympic Mountains as Wilderness and designated 19 Olympic Peninsula Wild and Scenic rivers that provide salmon habitat and clean water as they flow into the Puget Sound and Pacific Ocean.
Federal legislation to designate Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers provide lasting and permanent protection from new dam construction, mining, some forms of logging, and other threats to intact watersheds that can negatively impact Chinook salmon production.