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NPR
May 1, 1994

Transcript: Willapa Bay, Washington Experiments with Sustainability

 

FAITH FANCHER, Host: Coming up on 'All Things Considered,' we visit Willapa Bay in Washington State. It's one of the richest ecosystems in the country for oysters, cranberries, fish, and trees. It's been good to the people making a living from its bounty. Now they are trying to figure out how to be as good to the bay as it has been to them. That's coming up. Stay tuned.

FANCHER: You've probably heard a lot of stories on this network about the environment, and while the settings and players may change, basically, what's at issue is the simple notion of just plain getting along — men and women and all they've created getting along with the natural world around them. Policy analysts have a word for all this. They call it 'sustainability,' a vision of the world in which economic prosperity is compatible with a quality environment.

Last weekend on 'All Things Considered,' we took a long look at sustainability. We visited a community and cooperative in Mexico called Nobec [sp], where people log the neighboring jungle in ways that seem to preserve the forest indefinitely, and they're making money doing it. The people of Nobec have advice for people up North who are trying something similar.

1ST MAN: [through interpreter] Everywhere there's a lot of talk around the world about conservation, about adequate management of natural resources. The people aren't going to leave up good plans and lots of talk about rational management. There have to be real incentives that motivate people to really care for the resources.

FANCHER: That's exactly the philosophy some are testing now in Willapa Bay in Washington State, where another experiment in sustainability is underway. NPR's Howard Berkes takes us there.

MEN HEARD TALKING AND SOUND OF AIRPLANE BEING STARTED

HOWARD BERKES, Reporter: There are whitecaps on Willapa Bay, wind on the water, as we taxi along in a small float plane. We're trying to get up in the air between snow and rain squalls. We want an aerial view of what is called the nation's largest clean estuary.

SOUND OF PLANE MOTOR AND TALKING

BERKES: That's what makes this a special place, right?

1ST WOMAN: Well, it's the rain that makes it a special place. There's no doubt about that. It's what keeps everything working

BERKES: Rain is prolific here. It's measured in feet. More than 7 feet a year in the driest places, almost 17 feet in the wettest. That makes Willapa Bay, the Willapa hills in the distance and the lush valleys in between, one of the most productive watersheds in the country for trees, oysters, cranberries, and fish.

It doesn't seem to do much for people, though, because the Willapa area has some of the highest unemployment and lowest per capita income in the state. One local oysterman called it a golden Appalachia.

SOUND OF PLANE MOTOR AND MORE TALKING

BERKES: Waves bounce us around on the water, squalls buffet us in the air, but the view is worth it — the Pacific Ocean behind us and a spit 30-miles long separating the ocean from the bay. We fly in a patch of blue sky but rain and snow fall ahead, obscuring foothills and mountains.

This is a perfect place, we're told, for an ambitious experiment in which this entire watershed, a 1,000 square miles, and all the land, water, wildlife, and people in it can thrive together sustainably, compatibly, even though it's been used and abused for a century already, as Ecologist Kathleen Sais [sp] points out, in the turbulence over Willapa.

[interviewing] Are these oyster beds all along here?

KATHLEEN SAIS, Ecologist: Yeah, these are all oyster beds at the lower end of inner tidal. They all look a dark brown to brown brown. That's spartina, all above the edges of native marsh.

BERKES: That's a weed, essentially?

MS. SAIS: Well, it's not a native plant and it's so [unintelligible] to the ecology of parts of the inner tidal. Cranberry bogs. That's my dad's bog on the left, the part that's [unintelligible] on this side of the road.

BERKES: Are you from here?

MS. SAIS: Yes. I'm a native actually. I mean, I'm not an Indian but I was born here. In this area probably the 20 square miles that we can see right here, this is the best oyster-growing ground in the bay. If you look around in the hills, I don't know if you know how to recognize old growth trees, but you won't see many right around here.

BERKES: It's been logged a lot?

MS. SAIS: Yeah, it's all been logged. A lot of it's in its second round or third round of logging now.

BERKES: Some ranches down here?

MS. SAIS: Yeah, this is a beef ranch. It sits on dike land that was once all marsh. It's been diked probably since the teens or '20s.

BERKES: The bumpy ride is starting to get to us, and we can see the next squall coming in so we head back down to the bay.

Solidly on the ground at low tide, we stand in the bay in mud and rain, actually, just off Leadbetter Point, the tip of the 30-mile-long spit. Ecologist Kathleen Sais brought us here in rain gear and mud boots so we could get another perspective.

MS. SAIS: You guys have to turn around and look at the birds.

SOUND OF CHIRPING BIRDS

MS. SAIS: I think that's a flock of black brant, which is a sea goose that winters here on Willapa Bay. And there must be, what, 500 or 600 birds in that group.

BERKES: Scenes like this, say Sais, show there's still a lot here worth protecting.

MS. SAIS: We've still got clean water, which means we've got healthy oysters and clams, healthy eel grass beds, healthy inner tidal populations of microscopic and macroscopic plants and animals. That means we've still got thousands and thousands of birds that winter here, that move through here in the migrations. And a fairly healthy subtidal for the fish populations. But, of course, we're hammering at the edges. We've got a lot of overfishing going on offshore. Because of logging in the hills in past decades we've lost a lot of salmon habitat. So, the salmon populations aren't too happy.

But, yet, Willapa Bay is a place where if we were to back out right now and walk away from it, everything would still be here. We haven't lost any of the pieces yet. And I'm not saying Willapa Bay is pristine. It's not. And I'm not saying it doesn't have problems. It's got some serious problems. But it still retains the key ecological elements that make it a productive and viable estuary. We can still see gray whales come in here and feed.

BERKES: In the bay?

MS. SAIS: Yes, and we can still see hundreds of thousands of shore birds at one time in the bay, and that's pretty amazing.

BERKES: Two environmental groups have teamed up to make Willapa Bay a demonstration project. The Washington state office of the Nature Conservancy and Ecotrust of Portland, Oregon, believe the Willapa watershed can be cooperatively managed so that people there thrive by exploiting nature's bounty without depleting it or destroying it in the process. Spencer Beebe founded Ecotrust, after a decade working to save tropical rain forests from destruction.

SPENCER BEEBE, Founder, Ecotrust: I had a growing sense of hypocrisy. The idea that we as Americans or North Americans would run around the world suggesting to Brazilians or Mexicans how they best preserve their rain forest or how they might develop sustainably.

BERKES: Beebe believes the temperate rain forests in North America require the same treatment, so he's gathered a team of biologists, social scientists, marketing experts, fundraisers, and community organizers. They work here in a renovated flour mill on the Portland waterfront. They spend a lot of time and money trying to get local people to see the connections between the environment and the economy. Local people, he says, are the untapped resource of the environmental movement.

MR. BEEBE: To the extent that local people are local residents and long-term residents — and that's a key ingredient — then they are the ones who have the most at stake in maintaining the quality of the water, the quality of the soils, the productive capacity of the forest.

BERKES: This runs counter to conventional environmental thinking which blames local people for fouling their own nest in exchange for jobs and profits. It's no wonder those local people are often suspicious of environmentalists from Portland or Seattle. To get past that, Beebe spent a lot of time traveling and talking in the Willapa region, as did Elliott Marks [sp] from the Seattle office of the Nature Conservancy. The key, Marks says, is getting people to see financial incentives in environmental protection.

ELLIOTT MARKS, Nature Conservancy: I don't think people by and large are motivated to do the right thing simply because it's the right thing. You have to find a way to make the bottom line be a motivation for people to do the right thing, and so you have to find ways that the economy would be boosted, for example, by greater biodiversity in the system and make the products from greater biodiversity pay off for people.

BERKES: Marks and Beebe are spreading the gospel of sustainability, and some from Willapa Bay are responding.

KAREN SNYDER, Anna Lena's [sp] Cranberry Products: My name is Karen Snyder [sp], and we're at Anna Lena's Cranberry Products. This is a business that I started 5 and 1/2 years ago, not in this location, but we've been here about four years, and we make a variety of things from cranberries. We have sweet hot cranberry mustard, cranberry catsup, cranberry sweet and sour sauce, cranberry apple syrup, cranberry raspberry syrup, cranberry raspberry vinegar.

BERKES: Karen Snyder stands in a small warehouse that could be called her cranberry conservatory.

MS. SNYDER: Cranberry orange marmalade, gosh, cranberry apple butter. And then, in our baking mixes we have an oatmeal cookie with crannies — that's our name for dried cranberries. We have a cranberry orange nut bread mix, bran muffins with crannies. We have several kinds of-

BERKES: Anna Lena's Cranberry Products is the kind of business Beebe and Marks want to see here, and Snyder is the kind of recruit they see. Her family boasts five generations in the Willapa watershed. Snyder joined up. She now chairs the Willapa Alliance, the local group formed to implement the sustainability dream. With her is Dano Markham, [sp] a minister and former country commissioner with roots three generations back. Markham is the director of the Alliance.

DANO MARKHAM, Dir., Willapa Alliance: Spencer Beebe from Ecotrust kinda went around to what he perceived, or had heard, were community leaders and said, 'I have this idea about sustainable development. How do you feel about it?' I'd never heard the term before. So, the term — you know, as I learned what they meant, I said, 'Yeah, that's the same thing that a lot of us believe in.'

MS. SNYDER: You know, by the same token I think a lot of those of us that originally started with the Willapa advisory group did it sort from a sense of self-preservation. I better go to these meetings and find out what's it all about and then I'll know first hand, you know—

BERKES: In case they're up to no good.

MS. SNYDER: Exactly. Exactly. Let's take a look and see what this is all about. And there was a lot of skepticism originally.

MR. MARKHAM: Some of the more conservative parts of our community were suspicious — some still are — that we're kind of the lackeys or the front men for the big environmental group that wants to come in and write regulations and, you know, change the whole political socio-economic, political system in the county, which is the furthest thing from really what we want to do.

BERKES: What the Alliance wants to do, with help from Beebe and Marx, is develop new businesses that exploit the bounty of the bay and watershed in environmentally-sound ways. They want businesses that manufacture locally, instead of shipping out raw and unfinished products shipping out jobs and profits with them. They want to put a premium on the purity of Willapa Bay products, marketing to green consumers, those who buy with environmental values in mind.

They also want to attract businesses to this thick stand of pine and alder in the hills beyond Willapa Bay. Birds sing here as does traffic on the state highway nearby. Butte Creek is just down the hill. A bubbling brook, babbling birds, and trees all around, what a great place to build an industrial park, a green industrial park for environmentally-sensitive companies. A Belgian soap company has shown some interest in building a small plant here, which excites Rebecca Chaffee [sp], the city engineer in Raymond, Washington, a logging town just over the hill.

REBECCA CHAFFEE, City Engineer, Raymond, Washington: I think it could be, you know, kind of our salvation. If you look at our social statistics with unemployment and income and child abuse, and you name it, alcoholism. There are some real problems and it's- the underlying problem is lack of employment, you know, there's no money. So, I see this as a real potential for turning this whole area around, and we will pursue it as far as we can.

BERKES: A furniture maker is also interested in locating a plant in the Willapa area. That California company uses alder, a trash tree to most loggers who often kill it with herbicides. Bigger markets for alder could diminish herbicide use, turn trash into cash, and create jobs.

PAT HAMILTON, Pacific County Commissioner: We've been going to have a furniture company now for three years. We are still talking to the soap factory, but the soap factory's also negotiating with someone outside of the area.

BERKES: Pat Hamilton is not part of the Willapa Alliance. Hamilton is a Pacific County commissioner, and she's skeptical of the Alliance's plans.

MS. HAMILTON: One of the main problems that we have, we have a channel outfront that makes shipping and moving things very difficult because it keeps filling itself in. There's no real sustainable money to keep it dredged properly. We've just recently lost our rail. We no longer have rail. And the areas that you would drive out from Pacific County out into other areas so that you could get your market out there—

BERKES: To the freeways—

MS. HAMILTON: To the freeways and stuff are almost impassable for large trucks. So, the infrastructure problem are there.

BERKES: There are also financing problems for businesses large and small. Spencer Beebe's working on that. Ecotrust and the South Shore Bank of Chicago are setting up an eco-bank for the region aimed at environmentally-sensitive depositors. The bank will loan money to businesses that meet the sustainability test, but it won't open for several years.

Businesses can get other help soon. Marketing experts will be working soon in Willapa doling out advice and seed money, but skeptics like Pat Hamilton wonder how many new businesses will form, how many jobs they'll create, and what those jobs will pay.

MS. HAMILTON: I am not against small businesses. I am not against anything that will benefit the public as a whole of Pacific County. I believe in sustainable development, but like so many of these warm, fuzzy buzzwords, they're easy to trip off the tongue but they're darn hard to make valid.

SOUND OF HOPPER IN OYSTER PLANT

BERKES: Some question whether traditional industries in Willapa Bay can be sustainable long term, whether oysters as big as fists will always fill hoppers in this oyster plant. The work here is fast and furious. Workers pull oysters from the hoppers, pry them open with knives, scoop out the meat, and start again.

There are several threats to oysters. One is ghost shrimp, small pale shellfish that burrow in oyster beds causing the oysters to sink in the mud. The oyster harvest sinks with them. Another threat is spartina, a grass native to other coasts but not here. It grows in the tide flats turning them into meadows, slowly eating away at the bay, the oyster beds, and cranberry bogs. A pesticide is used on the ghost shrimp, and an herbicide on some spartina in a limited government experiment.

HERBERT WHITISH, Chmn., Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe: And what I have a problem with is that, you know, there's a lot of food producing in this area, oysters and stuff. Now how long is that gonna be a viable operation if they continue to dump chemicals into the waters to control these pest species? And it's all driven by, you know, the dollar and the economics of the thing, and one of these days they're gonna have to change that philosophy and start dealing with it on an environmentally-sound basis.

BERKES: Herbert Whitish [sp] is a biologist, a storekeeper, a member of the Willapa Alliance, and chairman of the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe. He presides over a tiny reservation, one square mile in size, on the north shore of Willapa Bay. Part of his concern about chemicals stems from a medical mystery here. Shoalwater people die young if they make it past infancy at all. Whitish is the third oldest male in the tribe and he's only 38. Eighteen of the last 27 pregnancies ended in miscarriage. No one knows what causes this, but it makes Whitish wary of chemicals.

MR. WHITISH: People are scared to eat shellfish anymore because they don't know where it's been. Now, if we can maintain this bay in that realm and keep those chemicals out of there, we may end up spending more money to do that but we'll gain more money at the end when it comes time to sell the product because people will pay to eat something that they know hasn't been fouled by chemicals.

BERKES: This is a major issue in Willapa, something people have been fighting about for years. Some insist the chemicals are safe. Ecotrust and the Alliance are pursuing alternatives. They're working to bring chum salmon back to Willapa. Chums feed on ghost shrimp. They were almost wiped out in an attempt to attract more desirable salmon species. Chums don't taste as good as other salmon. But they're suitable for canning, so their return could control ghost shrimp and provide fishing and cannery work.

There's also an effort to capitalize on spartina. The grass is used to make paper and packing material. Businesses using spartina would mow or hand cut it, which keeps it under control. Neither alternative brings quick results so the pressure for chemicals continues.

This shows how tricky this notion of sustainability can be when it affects somebody's bottom line, especially when that somebody is big.

SOUND OF LOGGING OPERATION IN WILLAPA HILLS

In the Willapa hills outside Raymond, cables drag freshly-cut logs up a slope and lift them onto trucks. This is a 40-acre clear cut where 60-year-old hemlock used to stand. It's a jumble now of tree stumps and limbs. Most of the forest in the Willapa watershed is owned by timber companies and has been cut once or twice already. Almost half the land belongs to one company, Weyerhauser. Walking us through this clear cut is Weyerhauser forester Chuck Hoskinson [sp].

CHUCK HOSKINSON, Forester, Weyerhauser: We usually try to replant an area within a year after it has been harvested. And this one here is gonna be pretty close to a year by the time we plant it.

BERKES: So, how long after you replant here would you expect trees to be ready to harvest?

MR. HOSKINSON: Forty-five years.

BERKES: And what will you be replanting here?

MR. HOSKINSON: Well, it will be one of the three species. It'll be either Douglas fir, hemlock, or western red alder. Those are our three major species that we plant.

BERKES: This is sustainability to Weyerhauser, an active member of the Willapa Alliance. Weyerhauser's Willapa land has been a tree farm for decades, and the company says it can grow and cut trees here indefinitely. It has a management plan for the next century. It can do this in part because this is some of the most productive timberland in the country. Company officials say it's wet and fertile enough to grow trees quickly and repeatedly.

This demonstrates, though, how sustainability means different things to different people. To Weyerhauser it means a sustainable supply of commercial timber over time. To others it means jobs sustained over time. Weyerhauser doesn't meet that test, they claim, because it ships Willapa logs to Japan and China instead of milling them here. And it just replaced 40 people with machines and computers at its Raymond mill. Weyerhauser Vice President John McMahon says this makes his company sustainable.

JOHN MCMAHON, Vice Pres., Weyerhauser: To the extent those overseas markets bring a higher return than the domestic market would for a given log species or grade at a point in time, then, you know, that provides the wherewithal to reinvest in both forestry and manufacturing back home in Pacific County. So, that it is, you know, a very definite positive contributor to our ability to do what we want to do there long term.

BERKES: And retooling the Raymond mill, McMahon says, assures it will be competitive and operating long term.

Some say Weyerhauser flunks another sustainability test. Its forest may grow back, but they've lost biological diversity. Only commercial species are replanted. Fish and wildlife are lost. Weyerhauser foresters say they preserve some diversity by leaving patches of trees for wildlife and corridors of trees along streams. They say they're committed to environmental values, especially in the Willapa watershed.

But Lee Weigert [sp] wonders how far that can go for Weyerhauser and himself. Weigert is a third-generation oyster grower and a former chairman of the Willapa Alliance.

LEE WEIGERT, Oyster Grower: And if they're good, it's wonderful. And very frankly, if they're bad, it would be a nightmare. Right now, to me, I worked with several Weyerhauser people. I think they're wonderful people. They want to do what's right. They're trying to do what's right. It could work, bearing in mind that they're a corporation, that some day a corporate manager might say, 'Holy smoke! We're losin' money and here we are plantin' roses in with our trees. We gotta go for bust.' Same with, I suppose, even a little tiny corporation like me. You start to lose money you can't get nice and fancy.

BERKES: Weyerhauser biologists are studying the watershed. Ecotrust and the Willapa Alliance hope to build and staff a science center to independently monitor the region and human uses of it. This is not an easy process for Willapa Bay. Some suggest, in fact, that Spencer Beebe of Ecotrust and Elliott Marks of the Nature Conservancy are casting too wide a net by tackling an entire watershed and all its problems and politics and interests. But that's what the world is like, full of complex issues that don't dissolve in the face of lofty ideals. Spencer Beebe.

MR. BEEBE: If we can't, in a place like Willapa Bay, which is arguably one of the most productive ecosystems on the face of the earth, where there's a modest number of people — I mean, the population density, 20,000, 30,000 people in an area the size of Rhode Island — where we have all the support systems of the U.S. We have universities, an agricultural extension, and relatively stable governments and private land ownership and big corporate investments. If, in a place like Willapa Bay, we continue to watch the young people leave and the salmon disappear and the trees become fewer and the forest less productive, it's- we have to ask ourselves whether in fact it's possible in other parts of the world.

SOUND OF WATER RIPPLING

BERKES: This will take a long time, Beebe says, maybe decades. It needs time to work. But will people in Willapa sustain their commitment? Maybe not, based on something we sensed there addressed later in a letter from Kirk Johnson of the Northwest Policy Center in Seattle. 'The Willapa Alliance,' he writes, 'is working with an adopted vision lacking local ownership. The project has a lot of brains,' he says, 'but so far seems short on heart and soul.' He also notes, though, that the Alliance brings together people with conflicting interests seeking common ground and that is a major first step.

MUSIC

PRODUCTION CREDITS GIVEN

FANCHER: Good evening for 'All Things Considered.'

FUNDING CREDITS GIVEN

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