If you want to strike a blow on behalf of imperiled salmon in honor of Earth Day, you better get cracking – there’s a deadline of Saturday to comment on a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that critics say would undermine efforts to bring back the icon of the Northwest.
We’ll probably do a proper news story on this at some point, but there isn’t time for that before the comment deadline, so I’ll tell you what I’ve learned so far:
The Army Corps is responsible for the levees that are intended to keep rivers from spilling outside their banks, causing flooding. And the agency is pretty convinced it should prohibit any trees or even large bushes on the levees. The Corps claims – and this is apparently at the heart of the disagreement – that trees’ roots destabilize levees. People who want the trees left on the levees think just the opposite, that the roots help hold the levee soils together. The Corps admits the science is murky.
Now, trees on levees are important to salmon for a number of reasons. Among them: Trees and bushes shade the waterways, keeping them cool, as salmon need. They also are home to bugs that fall in the water and are eaten by young salmon. And vegetation helps slurp up and filters polluted stormwater before it reaches the waterway.
The Corps, though, is proposing that plants and trees be chopped down once their trunks reach two inches in diameter.
This became something of a fixation for the Corps after the miserable performance of levees in and around New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
Doug Osterman is the guy who called this to our attention. He’s the Green-Duwamish-Central Puget Sound watershed coordinator for the King County government. The Corps’ rule against trees on levees led to toppling more than 1,000 of them already.
The Seattle office of the Corps issued a variance from the national no-tree policy. The comment deadline Saturday is for a rule that would permanently transfer decision-making about whether to allow local variances, like the one in Western Washington to protect salmon, away from the Corps’ regional offices to its headquarters in D.C.
Osterman said he was taken aback by the Corps’ move because former King County Executive Ron Sims met with the agency and the Corps seemed to understand the need to keep the trees:
“We were all completely caught off guard by this mandate to change how we manage it now."
Osterman says not being heard by the Corps on this is one of many setbacks in the fight for salmon that make him feel “like somebody had bound me with duct tape and thrown me in the trunk of a car. I’m trying to represent salmon recovery and I’m bound by duct tape.”
A Q-and-A provided to InvestigateWest by the Seattle office of the Corps, but which I cannot find online, explains the change thusly:
“Because documented science on the impacts of vegetation on levee systems is limited worldwide, HQUSACE wants to ensure that all deviations from the current vegetation-management standards follow a consistent review and documentation process.”
A government like King County could still apply to the Corps' D.C. offices for a variance, but would have to present proof that the trees and bushes won’t hurt the structural integrity of the levee. Remember, this is the agency whose Q-and-A says straight out that the science on this is not very clear — but it puts the burden of proof on those who would protect fish.
This story has not gotten much attention in the local news media. Not lately, anyway. (Not since…. hmm… not since the Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped publishing a newspaper.)
Phuong Le of the AP covered it in February 2009. Former Dateline Earther Lisa Stiffler also wrote about it for the P-I in July 2008. The AP’s Felipe Nieves also did a story on the national picture last June. But now we’re at a crucial point if you want to weigh in. Here’s how, quoting from the Federal Register notice of Feb. 9 (don’t worry about the March 11 deadline mentioned there; it’s been extended to Saturday, April 25):
"Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. Follow the
instructions for submitting comments.
E-mail: Douglas.J.Wade@usace.army.mil. Include the docket number,
COE-2010-0007 in the subject line of the message.
Mail: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Attn: CECW-CE, Douglas J. Wade,
441 G Street, NW., Washington, DC 20314-1000.
Hand Delivery/Courier: Due to security requirements, we cannot
receive comments by hand delivery or courier.
Instructions: Direct your comments to docket number COE-2010-0007.
All comments received will be included in the public docket without
change and may be made available on-line at http://www.regulations.gov …"
Wade's phone number, btw, is 202-761-4668.
— Robert McClure