What's for dinner?

 

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.

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.

Environmental 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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!