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Apr 21

Reflecting on Earth Day

Posted on April 21, 2018 at 8:02 AM by Allan Warren

Like the thousands of farmers, homeowners, gardeners, and volunteers we work with on a daily basis, Earth Day is everyday for us here at the District. Working to protect and restore our local ecosystem is embedded in everything we do. However, Earth Day itself provides an opportunity to reflect on the challenges we're up against, the good work we're doing, and our hope for the future.

Most importantly though it provides a reminder that we all need to do more if we're going to hold on to best things about this beautiful place we call home. Here in Puget Sound that means conserving farmland and open space, recovering endangered salmon and orca populations, and reducing the amount of pollution our built spaces contribute to the crystalline waters that make this such a special place to live. It also means involving everyone in our community in this work and focusing our efforts on those most impacted by environmental degradation.

When you look at the challenges ahead of us, it can at times feel hopeless. It's important to remember though, that there's a difference between doom-and-gloom outlooks of big challenges and taking an honest look at what we're really up against so that we can replace that feeling of hopelessness with a strategic course of action and the hope that springs from each of us doing our part. Earth Day is a reminder that despite how difficult the road ahead might be, we engage in this work despite that occasional feeling of hopelessness because we love the place that provides us our life blood.

Challenges
You can't really begin a conversation about the challenges we face without first mentioning climate change. For us locally, this means rising sea levels that will endanger nearshore homes and businesses; increased flood risk; increased drought and wild fire danger; ocean acidification threatening shellfish populations and recreational and commercial harvest; increased heat island effect in our urban areas and with it negative impacts on air quality and health; and the list goes on. 
Population Growth
The challenges we face are not just BIG issues like climate change and the known and unknown impacts it will bring, but more local challenges as well. Puget Sound is currently home to roughly 4 million people, which represents a doubling of residents in the last 40-years. That number is projected to reach 8 million in the next 40 years. When you consider that stormwater runoff from our developed areas already contributes 14 million tons of pollution to Puget Sound every year, doubling the development feels a bit daunting to say the least.

It's not just the impacts of pollution though. Since 1950, the USDA estimates Puget Sound has lost 60% of it's farmland, and in Pierce County it's an even worse 70%. "If this trend continues, the last acre of farmland in the region could be bulldozed or paved by 2053." Access to fresh and healthy food is a real and growing challenge in our region. As the map to the right highlights, Pierce County has the highest concentration of areas defined as food deserts in the region. A lot of media
Food Desertscoverage has been dedicated in recent years to the next big Cascadia earthquake, but what happens when the earthquake hits and we don't have any farmland left to grow food locally?

While farmland is a vital cultural, economic, and security component to our region, it's not the only thing being lost to development, so is the habitat for our most important and threatened Pacific Northwest cultural icons: salmon and orca whales. Salmon are in trouble, and for Puget Sound populations, things are getting worse.  Due to the fact that salmon are their main food source, our Southern Resident orca whale population may be in even worse shape, dropping to a 30-year low in recent years.

All of these challenges impact our well being. Disproportionately however, these challenges impact members of our community on the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum. Equity, or rather the lack of equity, is a buzz word these days and while many organizations working on environmental challenges throughout the region now recognize that equity is lacking, this is new and unfamiliar work and how to do it effectively is another challenge we must overcome. 

Our Work Brings Hope

When I think about all of those challenges, it can feel like we're beating our heads against a wall in the hope that it will fall down. Then I think about the work we're doing and I'm reminded that for each of those challenges, we have dedicated and passionate staff out in the community working on solutions alongside equally passionate landowners, volunteers, and partner organizations. 

On Climate Change: Our Climate Resiliency Program is helping farmers and rural business owners reduce their energy consumption and install renewable energy solutions. Through our FireWise Program they're also working to help communities like Greenwater reduce the risk of wild fires, such as last year's Norse Peak Fire. We're working to establish a Shore Friendly Program that will help marine shoreline homeowners protect their homes in a way that also can restore important marine habitat. 

On Pollution: The Depave project highlighted in the video above is but one example of how our Water Quality team is helping deal with stormwater pollution. They're also helping install Rain Gardens at homes and schools around the County, getting more of that rain water to infiltrate into the ground so it doesn't carry pollution to local streams. Through their Urban Tree Program they're helping get trees in the ground where it provides not only the best impacts for stormwater, but in the communities where green space is most needed.

On Farmland and Open Space Conservation: Our farm team is working to conserve ~1,000 acres of prime farmland over the next four years. This will help ensure that we not only have space to grow food locally, but maintain the ecosystem services that farmland provides, such as infiltrating stormwater, storing carbon in the soil, and where possible, restoring salmon habitat. Along side the conservation goal, the Farm Team is working to install roughly 200 acres of best management practices over the next 4-years, including things like our Direct Seed Drill, riparian plantings, and other projects that help reduce nutrient and sediment runoff into our local stream.

Meanwhile our Habitat Team is working hard to restore the South Prairie Creek Preserve ahead of a major floodplain reconnection project slated to start later this year. Once finished, this will provide dozens of acres of new salmon and steelhead habitat in one of our most vital streams. The Habitat Team is hard at work on numerous other sites around the county too, planting thousands of trees and shrubs while fighting invasive species to help get key salmon habitat restored.


On Food Access and Equity: Our Harvest Pierce County team has built a growing movement around local food access, increasing the number of community gardens in Pierce County from 8 to almost 80 in the last few years. The Farm at Franklin Pierce is a community food project that volunteers help run that grows nearly 35,000lbs of food each year for Franklin Pierce School District cafeterias and local families, one of those key Food Deserts. The Gleaning Program leverages an army of volunteers to harvest another 20,000lbs of food that would otherwise go to waste and deliver it to local food banks.

Meanwhile, our Cultural Navigators initiative is leading the way in filling that knowledge gap of how to work with historically underserved communities. They've successfully started working with six non-English communities here in Pierce County and are now working with our other programs to expand that outreach so that we properly represent our local community.  

While helping launch the Pierce County Fresh we focused on getting access to folks on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, as highlighted in the video below.


On the Next Generation:
All of this work then feeds into our Environmental Education program, which is working hard to educate and inspire the next generation with both skills and the passion to tackle these big challenges. Our EE program has nearly doubled it's reach in the last few years and we're going to keep that momentum going. We're developing new educational programming to reach more K-12 youth as well as adults and are empowering people to take part in the solutions we need to restore Puget Sound.

What You Can Do
All of this work is intertwined in a complex web, just as all of the challenges listed above are. Though we haven't yet turned the corner on restoring Puget Sound, momentum is building and we're getting more people involved each and every day. It's easy to see all of the problems we face and become overwhelmed with uncertainty about where to even start. 

That's where we can help. It's our job to boil all these complex challenges down into their individual aspects and strategically address them. We do so by creating programs that people like you can get involved in. That can be in the form of volunteering, community gardening, installing a rain garden at your home, or even as simple as fixing a car leak. If you find yourself feeling hopeless and uncertain, reach out to us and ask what you can do to get involved, I bet we have a way to get you involved in the solution. Maybe an additional 4 million people doesn't have to be a challenge, maybe it can be an opportunity.

On this Earth Day, take a moment to reflect on your community, your local ecosystem and how the two intertwine. Finding a balance between human needs and the environment is the greatest challenge of our time, but the solutions for that challenge can come in every day action.




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