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Last published at August 7, 2009 at 8:46 PM

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Guest columnist

Tough choices in the recovery of Puget Sound

Washington state must put actions behind its values to save Puget Sound, writes Peter Goldmark, the state's commissioner of public lands.

Special to The Times

Throughout Washington, people understand that the waters of Puget Sound carry great value. Whether your ancestors have fished here for centuries or you have newly arrived in the region, you know the importance of a clean, healthy Puget Sound.

Economists have calculated the economic and natural-resource benefits derived from Puget Sound at upwards of $61 billion a year. The public understands this, too. In a recent opinion survey more than 90 percent of respondents said protecting Puget Sound from pollution is a top priority. Our citizens have repeatedly said that the Sound is part of our cultural heritage and we need to ensure a cleaner Puget Sound for the future.

Elected officials of both parties talk about the importance of the cleanup and recovery. The Legislature and Gov. Chris Gregoire have created the Puget Sound Partnership and invested heavily in clean-up and recovery efforts. Overall state funding for the Sound's restoration and protection is estimated at $515 million for the 2009-11 biennium. The federal government also understands the Sound's importance and will be sending millions in stimulus dollars, in addition to their direct funding, to our state to aid in recovery and restoration.

While we cherish Puget Sound, our actions don't always reflect our values. It makes absolutely no sense to continue to plow our limited dollars into restoration projects unless we also fully commit to current and future protection. We must move forward with the highest standards for protection because, in this case, an ounce of prevention equates to billions more in a cure.

Past policies and decisions illustrate a value system that I believe is not representative of the broader public. It places singular interests above the public good; elevates narrow, short-term benefits for a few over long-term, sustainable benefits for many; and sacrifices our natural heritage. This infectious short-sightedness will be the slow death of the Sound.

Anything short of responsible stewardship of our natural resources should not be tolerated. The history that has brought us here highlights the paradigm shift that must happen if we are to ever see the recovery of Puget Sound.

I have five grown children, and when they were toddlers it was never a challenge for them to tell me or their mother, "no." They learned this word from their parents attempting to keep them from harm. Somehow over time that word has vanished from our collective vocabulary, as a region and a state, when we are talking about the tough choices necessary to prevent damaging uses on Puget Sound.

Sometimes we may have to say no to proposed uses if such activities would threaten the recovery of the ecosystem.

What we are witnessing is death by a thousand cuts. It has been all too easy to allow new uses with a slight impact on the health of this tremendous body of water and the orca and salmon that call it home. Far too much is at stake to continue on this path. We need to raise the bar immediately.

Growing populations are compounding the problem. This is one of the best places in the world to live and recreate; that brings its own challenges to the Sound. There is a high demand abroad for our quality shellfish and pressure to grow more intensively. We are currently asked to expand industrial development, even within aquatic reserves, and all of these strains come during unprecedented economic times. Too often in these situations we rush to take shortcuts.

We have an imperative to future generations and current taxpayers to ensure the highest standards when it comes to being stewards of this precious gift of Puget Sound. If we really care, and I believe we do, we must take decisive action before it is too late.

Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark administers the Washington State Department of Natural Resources which manages 2.6 million acres of state-owned aquatic lands including the bedlands under Puget Sound.

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