Remove barriers to preserve salmon runs for future generations

Special to The Seattle Times

Five generations, 110 years. That’s how long the Wilcox family has lived in the Nisqually River watershed, pouring our blood, sweat and tears into our local communities. It seems like quite a long time until you think about the history of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, which has lived there for hundreds of generations.

Each of those hundreds of generations of Nisquallys have depended on the abundance of Puget Sound salmon runs — as have my family and families across the state. Today, those salmon runs are in sharp decline and could even die out. Without immediate action, our generation could be the last to know natural Puget Sound salmon runs.

I recently had a conversation about this with Farron McCloud, Nisqually Tribal chairman, and was struck by his sense of desperation. Year after year, decade after decade, healthy salmon runs have played a vital role in sustaining the culture and economy of the Nisqually Tribe.

There are many reasons why our state’s salmon population is dying, and research shows much of the blame lies with man-made barriers that prevent salmon from reaching the habitat they need to spawn naturally.

Historically, Washington has done too little to remove these barriers. In fact, we didn’t even know the extent of the problem. Initially, the best estimate we had was 14,000 man-made, complete and partial barriers. We now know that number is closer to 40,000.

Even before we knew exactly how many barriers there were, I introduced legislation to allow more barrier-removal projects to qualify for streamlined permitting. The bill also created the Fish Barrier Removal Board. For the first time, a statewide strategy has been implemented to open up hundreds of miles of fish habitat on federal, state, county, city, tribal and private land at the lowest possible cost.

Thousands of fish barriers — aging culverts, washed out road crossings, weirs, dams, gates and screens — have since been removed.

But we need to do more.

That’s why I’ve introduced another piece of legislation this year — SHB 2902 — that’s designed to get the state moving more quickly and efficiently to open fish habitat. The bill has already passed the Agriculture and Natural Resources committee on bipartisan vote and now awaits action in the Appropriations Committee

Funding is key, which is why my bill dedicates a fraction of the budget surplus to the problem: $50 million of the $700 million of extra revenue we have courtesy of our strong economy.

I’m a conservative — both a fiscal conservative and a conservationist. I choose to save taxpayer money and to save fish by repairing habitat today.

Our state has lost a major court case regarding culverts and will be forced to pay for salmon recovery. The question is when and how to do that efficiently. Dedicating a modest fraction of the state budget surplus to repairing habitat lets us start immediately on the problem, which boosts salmon populations more quickly. If we wait, salmon populations could be so depleted that we’ll be forced by the courts to spend even more than this bill provides for, with a much poorer return on investment. Even if another court rules for the state in the ongoing litigation, salmon recovery is still an obligation we need to honor.

Those in rural areas have led the way on this issue for a long time. Small and large private forest landowners have spent more than $300 million since 2001, removing 6,499 fish barriers and upgrading more than 25,000 miles of forest roads.

It’s now time for the state to step up and do its part. Voters are used to politicians talking about a problem, without solving it. SHB 2902 makes salmon recovery a real priority for the state. We do not have time to wait, and we cannot simply pass this problem off to the next generation.

We must act more efficiently and aggressively than ever before because salmon conservation matters. Environmental stewardship matters. The Nisqually Indian Tribe matters. The future of this state matters.

But above all else, leaving this world a better place than we found it matters.


Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, has served the 2nd Legislative District in the state House since 2011. He sits on the House Appropriations, Rules and Finance committees, and is the House Republican floor leader.

State Representative J.T. Wilcox, 2nd Legislative District
122A Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7912 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000