Conservation crown sports new jewels

Last Saturday night, I had the chance to get together with 200 of my closest friends to celebrate Hylebos Creek conservation successes.

The occasion was the Friends of the Hylebos’ fourth annual Ruby Dance Stewardship Dinner, which featured a powerful keynote presentation by Federal Way Schools Superintendent Tom Murphy — and no, we didn’t have salmon on the menu!

The event was a success in almost every sense: We raised more than $30,000 for the Hylebos, we had a great mix of people in attendance, the event was fun. My only regrets are that for the fourth year in a row, I haven’t had the time to finish the dinner that was catered by Café Pacific, nor did I get to sample the wine and cheese offerings provided by Metropolitan Market. I guess that’s just the life of an executive director.

This fourth Ruby Dance got me thinking again about the powerful mix of people and partners working to conserve a chunk of the green stuff in our community. While there are many examples I could cite, one of our award winners deserves a closer look, in part because of the impact they’ve had in the Hylebos Watershed.

We developed the Innovation in Conservation award to recognize people, businesses or agencies using new thinking to advance conservation in the Hylebos Watershed. Past winners have included Dave Malmgren and AHBL for the area’s first Low Impact Development, Meadow on the Hylebos and Natural Systems Design, a cutting-edge stream restoration design firm.

We gave this year’s award to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Natural Resources Damages Assessments Trustees (NRDA). I know, you’d think the award was for longest agency names or best supporting acronyms. In fact, we gave these two agencies the award, despite the unwieldy names. They’ve been acting in very un-governmentlike ways to advance real restoration projects in the Hylebos Watershed and Commencement Bay.

A little background info: The NRDA Trustees refers to a group of 12 state and federal natural resource agencies, and the Puyallup and Muckleshoot tribes, which were appointed by the courts to act as trustees for the public in the Hylebos Waterway and Commencement Bay Superfund cleanups. (NOAA is a trustee agency and provides staff support to the whole effort).

The trustees oversee the expenditure of the trust money generated by the Superfund fines. Businesses and agencies that may be responsible for environmental damages are also required to “repair” an equivalent amount of damage. The trustees have a regulatory role, in this case, of determining what restoration is required.

All that being said, you probably couldn’t think of a better situation for fomenting sluggish bureaucratic thinking: Let’s put a bunch of state and federal agencies around a table to argue about how to spend money. The award-winning surprise is that it has worked.

The trustees were early proponents of the Friends’ Hylebos Creek Conservation Initiative. In 2003, they chose to purchase and restore a critical 13-acre property near the mouth of Hylebos Creek, creating 5 acres of new marsh habitat at a key location in the Hylebos Initiative zone.

More important than the what, though, is the how. The trustees partnered with Fife in buying the property, creating the added value of an urban nature park and walking trail. And they brought the Friends in to plant some 30,000 native trees, shrubs and wetlands plants, involving hundreds of community members in the restoration effort. The result is one of the crown jewel conservation projects in the Hylebos.

In the trustees’ regulatory role, they have also supported unconventional mitigation efforts by local businesses and government agencies. The Port of Tacoma and Schnitzer Steel are both pursuing mitigation projects that support the aims of the Hylebos Initiative. Each of these projects, though, is trying to move faster than, let’s say, traditional governmental speed — and trying to use new thinking to maximize conservation results.

I’m not going to say that most government agencies would not want these things. But I have seen my fair share of government thinking getting in the way of results. The NRDA Trustees, however, have supported the projects for their in-the-ground results, while striving to ensure that good projects are built. It’s the kind of thinking that deserves an award, and deserves to spread.

Chris Carrel is a lifelong Federal Way resident and executive director of the Friends of the Hylebos, a nonprofit conservation organization working to preserve and restore Hylebos Creek and the West Hylebos Wetlands. Contact: chinook@hylebos.org or (253) 874-2005.

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