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Sarah Gilman | Jul 19, 2011 04:00 AM

Flying over Washington’s Puget Sound from SeaTac Airport, the view today is a wash of blues and whites. Low-hanging soupy, humid air vagues the sharp edges of an industrial waterfront. Blurred boatwake lines sketch the harbors and bays. The ocean looks smooth from here – unbroken and dull in the flat light save for a weird looping trail of yellowish orange across its surface. Pollen, perhaps, driven into pattern by currents? Or maybe something more sinister?

Whatever it is, there’s a lot of life down there in that water. And last week – a crash course in some of the major development and pollution problems facing the Sound put together by the nonprofit Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources – I sampled quite a bit of it. Salmon, oysters barbecued on an open grill, curried mussels. And from the flat, fertile valleys above: strawberries (the very ones used in Haagen Dazs ice cream), snap peas, carrots and more, all fresh from the day’s harvest.

We started our journey at the aquarium, where we gandered colorful fish under glass, otters, plump seals. Marine scientists told us about the Sound’s orcas – how their families stay together, how they’re sophisticated enough to have something very much like culture, how their fatty tissues are soaked with chemicals like flame retardants, washed or dumped from Seattle and surrounding communities and industrial areas.

We moved north into the Skagit Valley, where we visited a hydropower dam that carefully regulates flows to avoid scouring out fragile salmon redds in the Skagit River. We met several farmers who work the diked and filled landscape that used to be that river’s massive estuary – once a stopover for juvenile Chinook salmon (whose numbers have steeply declined) to rest and gather strength on their way to sea. We met with dairymen working hard to control manure runoff into local waterways, visited with local officials about runoff from malfunctioning septic systems and efforts to save farmland from proliferating subdivisions, and then met with a shellfish farmer who works for a company that’s faced 38 days of closures in its Samish Bay beds thanks to high levels of fecal coliform bacteria flowing into the Sound from the Samish River watershed during hard rains.

On one of our last days, we met with the timber company Pope Resources, which is eager to sell off thousands of acres of its private landholdings surrounding and near its historic company town, Port Gamble, so it can escape suburban growth pressures and move its logging operations farther south. The company's real estate arm, Olympia Property Group, which has been toying with ways to subdivide the property, says it wanted to concentrate residential development at its old mill site, right on Gamble Bay – leaving the vast majority of its acres as green space, laced with trails. To a reporter, it sounded like a pretty good deal. But directly across the bay sits the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe's reservation. Last year, the tribe was operative in fighting, and helping to kill, the proposal. When we visited them that afternoon, we found out part of the reason why.

S'Klallam clam bake

Under newspaper weighted with rocks and layered with kelp, tribal members had prepared us a lunch of local cockles, oysters, crab and clams – steamed in their own juices outdoors over hot coals. The upscale community planned by the Olympia Property Group would almost certainly come with a marina, explained tribal Chairman Jeromy Sullivan, and under state regulations, a marina would likely result in a cascade of environmental closures in the S’Klallam’s treasured (and already polluted, thanks to the old mill) Port Gamble Bay, from which members still harvest shellfish.

And so I come back to the plane over the Sound. Charlie Petit of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker once poked good-natured fun at me for using a sweeping airplane view as an entry into a blog on beetle-killed trees and global warming. I’m guessing he’d be amused to find me falling back on it again. But it’s too apt in this case to resist. We editors have a phrase for a story’s take-home message: “The 30,000-foot view.” If I had to pin it down, looking down at the Sound from my uncomfortably cramped seat, I’d say that the 30,000-foot view from last week’s circuitous journey was this: The moral and practical underpinnings of many of our environmental troubles -- and perhaps of that weird plume on the surface of the water -- are ultimately about food.

S'Klallam clam diggingEnvironmental stories can be remarkably difficult to tell. They move slowly and the regulations and problems involved can seem remote, technical and abstract. How do you bring them home? Maybe by presenting readers with a dilemma. What's more important: development or our ability to eat?   The answer, of course, is less than simple.                                                          

Port Gamble S'Klallam Indians dig clams in Port Gamble Bay at low tide.    


Sarah Gilman is associate editor at High Country News.

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