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New Federal Action Plan For Puget Sound Restoration Leverages Tribal Treaty Rights

Bellamy Pailthorp
Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, announcing major new initiatives for Puget Sound recover in Seattle on October 18, 2016.

Efforts to restore and protect Puget Sound are getting a big boost from the Obama administration.  

Local advocates for that work have long argued that, as one of the nation’s largest and most iconic estuaries, Puget Sound is a national treasure and deserves protections on par with Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.

Now a federal task force has formed to prioritize the pressing need for salmon restoration in the Sound, due in large part to what officials say is a steadfast commitment to local tribes’ treaty fishing rights.

President Obama’s top advisor on environmental policy announced the Puget Sound task force, along with a new memorandum of understanding and plans for habitat work worth $600 million. Those include new budget lines for a $450-million-dollar Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project– hailed as one of the largest ecosystem restoration projects ever undertaken by the federal government – and $20 million for restoration of 40 miles of habitat along the Skokomish River.

The new plans would also prioritize $100 million in funding for the long-planned addition of fish passage to Mud Mountain Dam, on the White River. Additionally, the EPA and Washington State have agreed to a combined investment of $248 million over the next five years to help accelerate Puget Sound recovery.

Christy Goldfuss, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said she spent two days touring Puget Sound and meeting with local and tribal officials.

“And what became clear to me that I didn’t fully understand until I got to make this trip was how fundamental the existence of salmon and fish and steelhead are to their treaty rights,” Goldfuss told a packed news conference.  

She said that message is not forgotten. “We understand we have a critical role to play here in the Puget Sound, in delivering on that commitment to the tribes and to the communities around the Puget Sound,” she said.

Tribal representatives thanked the federal officials for including them in the memorandum of understanding, noting their treaty rights have been often overlooked in the past. Tulalip Tribal Chairman Mel Sheldon said Tuesday’s announcements give them new hope.

“I was afraid to tell my people that there are no more salmon. Our way of life is gone. What you remember is memories now. But what I feel today, what has been shared today, that I can go back to my reservation; I can go back to Tulalip and say, there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Sheldon said.  

“We are reenergizing. We are going to make a difference. That habitat, those salmon are going to be there for our seventh generation,” he said.   

Congressman Denny Heck, who together with Representative Derek Kilmer co-chairs the Congressional Puget Sound Recovery Caucus and has been working hard to gain traction on the issue since 2013, says the role of the tribes should not be underestimated.

‘”These have been their lands and their waters from time immemorial. And if the rest of us think that we can save Puget Sound without their leadership and the cooperation, you’re just flat wrong. This is the strongest ally possible,” Heck said, expressing his extreme gratitude for both the tribes and the federal officials involved.

Heck says this moment will go down in the history of Puget Sound restoration.

Most of the $600 million in restoration funding has yet to be authorized and appropriated by Congress. But the federal and local officials say they now have a playbook and more optimism than ever about the hard work ahead.  

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to