Whatcom Watch Online
February 2002
Volume 11, Issue 02

Cover Story

The Sex Life of Rockfish

by Peter Huhtala

Peter Huhtala is the Rockfish Campaign Coordinator for the Pacific Marine Conservation Council. He writes from Astoria, Oregon.

“I could feel the electricity in the water around me,” reflects diver Eric Eisenhardt. “Fish were darting in and out of my view, bumping each other and flashing off in different directions.” Eric was diving in Puget Sound, observing rockfish as part of his graduate program at the University of Washington. He found himself in the midst of a large number of copper rockfish, in a relatively shallow area of the sound.

Eric swam among the fish, curious about the unusual behavior he observed. The situation soon became clear, as he recalls, “Right in front of my face mask two coppers rubbed against each other. One rolled on its side and they shimmied and shook.” Eric joined the ranks of the rare few who have beheld rockfish mating.

Copper rockfish, sometimes called Chucklehead, are one of about 71 species of rockfish that live in the waters of the West Coast. The coppers are among several species that venture near shore, at least during spawning, as Eric observed. They will also range to waters as deep as 600 feet.

Usually adult coppers prefer solitary lives near the bottom, exploring rocky pinnacles, caves and shipwrecks. They can live to 55 years, or more. But what’s with this mating frenzy?

Rockfish Don’t Lay Eggs—They Give Live Birth

The only real fish-mating I’ve had the pleasure to view is that of salmon. This phenomena never ceases to thrill me. Oblivious to human voyeurs, the spawning female tools a crater among the gravel. She nestles with her chosen male and he bumps and strokes her. The female expels her roe and the male ejects his milt upon the eggs. She spreads some gravel over the nest and they find a spot to do it again. Pretty sexy alright, but those rockfish seem to have added a new dimension.

Rockfish don’t lay eggs. They give live birth. Hence the display of an act of internal fertilization. In fact these amazing rockfish are viviparous – females not only carry the eggs until they hatch, they may also nourish their larvae in the ovary. Unlike the salmon, which die soon after spawning, rockfish can live to reproduce year after year. In fact many female rockfish become more fecund with age.

Once they leave their mother, the tiny rockfish larvae drift in the currents of the sea. They may find themselves many miles out into the ocean. Most will not survive; after a few months the ones that do will settle into kelp forests, rocky reefs or other preferred haunts of their species. Slowly they grow to adulthood. Some species are not considered mature until they are more than ten years old.

Rockfish are the elders of the West Coast fish society. Recently a rougheye rockfish was aged at 205 years old! She had numerous nautical adventures by the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark hunkered down for a winter at Fort Clatsop. She was munching krill long before Thomas Jefferson became the first president to be inaugurated in Washington, DC.

Elders of West Coast

She dodged the hooks of the Tlingit, the jaws of the Orca and the trawl nets of the new Americans for over 20 decades. She carried tens of millions of offspring in her time. Scientists examined her otoliths, the bones of her inner ears, to determine her age. Under a microscope, the rings of the otoliths reveal much about the life of a fish, but they can only hint of the hidden stories of two centuries.

From shallow salt water near the coast to depths of over 3,000 feet on the continental slope roam the striking and unusual rockfish. All share the genus of Sebastes, the perfect Greek word for these fish, meaning magnificent. Some are fat and spiny, others long and round; some grow to but a few inches, others to nearly four feet. They come in colors, many so brilliant they are named for a predominant hue: canary, vermilion, rosy, black and yellow, blue, red-banded, calico and green-blotched (that are mostly pink).

Many rockfish are loners, mingling close over the reefs with other individuals of many species. Some, like widow rockfish and bocaccio, gather in schools and journey far above the bottom. Some are even attracted to the refuge of abandoned oil-drilling platforms.

Long lives may be necessary to perpetuate rockfish. Ocean conditions change with oscillations of currents in patterns measured in decades. Even slight changes in the predominant temperatures and the availability of favored foods can be disastrous for some fish.

The survival of offspring might be all but eliminated for years. If the adults can make it through, they can reproduce again in the favorable years. Slow growth and long lives have proved a successful strategy for the venerable rockfish – at least until recent years.

Exploitation of Rockfish

Rockfish have a wonderful flesh considered by many, myself included, as delicious. They are also not that hard to catch. They have been an important diet for the native people of the West Coast for thousands of years. They were also a food source for the explorers and settlers arriving here from Europe and other parts of the world.

Over the last fifty years, a fishery has developed that more fully exploits the rockfish resource. This fishery helps feed people around the world. It drives an industry that significantly contributes to the economies of coastal communities. Facing a collapsing commercial salmon industry, many fishers in towns like Newport and Astoria have shifted their efforts to ocean groundfish, including rockfish.

Hundreds of boats ply the continental shelf and slope of the eastern Pacific searching for groundfish like petrale sole, sablefish and lingcod and also bringing to market dozens of species of rockfish. Some target their desired prey with vertical hook and line; others troll with great arrays of hooks; still others trawl large nets through the water column or bounce them along the bottom. The industry emerged off Washington, Oregon and California in the 1950s. Through a trade agreement, most of the West Coast rockfish were sold in markets as red snapper. By the early 1980s the catch of rockfish had peaked.

Largely to reduce competition by foreign fishing operations near United States borders, in 1976 Congress passed the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, asserting U.S. control of fishing rights to 200 miles from our shores. This act also established regional authorities to manage fisheries within this zone.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) is responsible for managing federal fisheries for 55 species of rockfish as well as other fish along the West Coast. Theoretically, the Council assesses the abundance of each species, sets harvest levels and allocates the resource among commercial gear types—while also reserving fish for the state-managed recreational fisheries.

Disastrous Results

However, making these decisions rationally requires extensive information about what is happening beneath the waves of the Pacific Ocean. With information hard to come by, PFMC nonetheless attempts to manage the fisheries. Some of the results have been disastrous.

The PFMC must consider a rockfish stock to be overfished when it declines to less than 25 percent of its unfished level. They must then create a plan for rebuilding the stock. One rockfish after another has been granted the dubious distinction of being overfished; some call the process “serial depletion.”

Pacific Ocean perch, already stressed by the foreign fleets during the 1960s, have plummeted. Others have followed, including cowcod, canary rockfish, dark-blotched rockfish and widow rockfish. The population of bocaccio off California is down to about two percent of historic levels, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature to list the bocaccio as critically endangered.

More rockfish species may be in trouble; but, it’s hard to tell in some cases. Of the 55 species managed by the PFMC, so little is known about 47 that they are classed “status unknown.”

Politics and Rockfish

Responding to the decline of rockfish, and also of other species like the lingcod, the PFMC began restricting the fishery. Limits have been placed on the overfished stocks. Attempts have been made to modify trawl nets to reduce impacts to rocky reefs. Lines have been drawn to create a no-fishing zone to try to protect cowcod.

California has issued regulations to outlaw targeting of juvenile rockfish (A restaurant market had developed that preferred plate-sized rockfish to others older and larger!). But it was the trip limits that have really rolled the industry. Allowable landings of healthy stocks have in some cases been severely reduced because fish that are in trouble are often caught incidentally along with the targeted species. If excess or prohibited fish are caught, fishermen are required to dump the dead fish back into the sea.

How many fish are thus wasted, and of what species, is unknown. This is primarily because the West Coast groundfish fishery is among the few major fisheries in the world that has not established a mandatory at-sea observer program.

In other fisheries, observers ride along on a percentage of fishing trips and impartially record information about species that are caught and discarded. They are generally trained in fisheries science and can provide other biological information as well. Observer programs are vital tools fishery managers need in order to make informed decisions.

Managers Use Guesswork

Without an observer program, managers use guesswork as they further restrict or encourage fishing effort. Wrong guesses can push species into further decline, extending by years the time it will take to bring the stock back to levels that can be sustainably fished. Conversely, unjustified restrictions slash the incomes of fishermen and processors and harm the communities that rely on fish coming to shore.

Cuts into trip limits during the past few years have reduced this fishery’s contribution to the economies of coastal towns by tens of millions of dollars. Many face the possibility of losing their boats—or their homes. Some have already left the industry; others would like to find a way out. In some areas the infrastructure of processing plants and supply stores is falling apart.

In January of 2000, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce issued a disaster declaration, finally acknowledging the dire situation of the West Coast groundfish failure. This set the stage for relief funds to be sent to the communities most affected. In June, Congress approved $5 million in community relief.

However, the money has been caught up in a bureaucratic loop; at this time, no money has made it to the people who need it. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has publicly chastised the National Marine Fisheries Service for a lack of initiative in expediting the distribution of these funds. Wyden has promised to see to it that the money makes it past the gauntlet of red tape.

Temporary relief is important, but many fishers and community residents are stubborn enough to hope that the fishery can continue for future generations. In December, Congress took a big step towards the goal of sustainable fishing by appropriating money to begin a West Coast observer program.

If the initial $2.3 million can be supplemented and the program continued for several years, the information gathered can help the PFMC make the wise decisions necessary to bring the fishery around. In addition, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the states plan expanded research that will increase the knowledge about rockfish stocks, habitat and ocean conditions.

No Easy Recovery

No one expects a quick and easy recovery for the depleted rockfish. The fact is that these fish have long lives and a low level of reproductive success. They grow slowly and may not even begin to spawn for decades, in many cases.

Many scientists, and others, believe that fishing effort cannot continue at its present levels. Biologically and economically there are simply not enough fish to support all the boats licensed to harvest them. The PFMC has declared that the commercial fleet on the West Coast needs to be reduced by at least 50 percent.

Given the current situation, it is very likely that this will happen. Whether the fleet will downsize through bankruptcy or with the assistance of an industry/government partnership, to buyout permits and boats, remains to be seen.

One encouraging sign is that Congress is giving consideration to the rockfish crisis early in this session. Senator Wyden arranged a Commerce Committee field hearing, held January 16, 2001, in Newport, Oregon, to look at this issue. Congresswomen Darlene Hooley and Nancy Pelosi, Senators Gordon Smith, Patty Murray, John Kerry and Barbara Boxer, Congressmen Pete DeFazio, David Wu, Sam Farr and Wayne Gilchrest, and many others are paying close attention.

The rockfish crisis calls for bipartisan political action. The management challenge is to find solutions that protect these remarkable animals while respecting the needs of communities that depend upon the harvest from the sea. Here we clearly observe an economy wholly dependent on the environment. We are actually bumping up against the finite ability of the oceans to feed the people of this planet.

Fishers are optimists. Many think that some species will prove more abundant than presently believed. I hope they’re right. The challenge to fishers is to demonstrate that they can fish clean, bringing in abundant species efficiently while avoiding the rebuilding stocks. Getting the observer program operating will benefit both fish and fishers.

Fish ecologist Milton Love has dedicated much of his life to the study of rockfish. His personal favorite is the cowcod. I asked him what it is that endears these fish to him. “Maybe it’s their child-like expression,” said Milt, “kind of like Saint Francis of Assisi. And they’re so big and stupid. All they really want is a place to stick their head, a rocky crevice or wherever, just so it’s dark and they feel safe, even though most of their body is sticking out and vulnerable.”

I was starting to understand. “Yes,” said Milt, “if you’re a saint in this life, you’ll come back as a cowcod.”

Rockfish on the Web

Do not, I repeat, do not forgo a tour of The Love Lab, sponsored by Milton Love, Ph.D: www.id.ucsb.edu/lovelab/index.html. Second stop, Pacific Marine Conservation Council: www. pmcc.org.

This article is reprinted, with permission, from Tidepool.org.

Cover Story

Does Lake Whatcom Qualify as an Impaired Waterbody?

by Tom Pratum

Tom Pratum is a Lake Whatcom resident who is trying to help preserve the lake and put his PhD in chemistry to beneficial use.

Part I

Concern over the levels of toxins such as mercury, PCBs, dieldrin, and the like in Lake Whatcom has grown in recent years. Add to that the recent sewage overflow, and it is no surprise that a steady stream of letters to the editor on this subject have appeared in our local daily newspaper, The Bellingham Herald.

The subdivision moratorium recently enacted by the Whatcom County Council hopes to address some of these concerns by reducing non-point pollution sources due to anthropogenic (human origin) inputs. While the necessity of such measures is not in question for many of us, others ask – where is the science behind this?

One particularly controversial piece of the puzzle is the recent feud between the state Department of Ecology and Whatcom County Water District 10 over the listing of the lake under section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act as an impaired waterway for low levels of dissolved oxygen (see Whatcom Watch, August 2001, page 1 and October/November 2001, page 1), and the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study which has resulted from this listing. This is what I hope to address here.

Biological Activity

When assessing a water body for its suitability as a water source, one characteristic that one would most likely want to see is a lack of overall biological activity. To view a water body exhibiting a high level of biological activity, merely leave your toilet un-cleaned and un-flushed for several weeks.

High biological activity generates masses of organisms – some of which may be pathogenic – which create a soupy (and possibly smelly) mess. Not only is such activity not conducive to use as a water source, it is certainly not conducive to use for swimming, fishing, or any other enjoyment.

Enter Lake Whatcom – certainly pristine and clear prior to the Caucasian settlement of this area. It was described in 1858 as “...a smooth sheet of water extending in an irregular semi-circle from southwest to southeast direction, fifteen or sixteen miles in length, with an average width of a mile, clear as crystal, sweet to the taste, cold, and in some places of fathomless depth.”1

Ignoring the slightly incorrect dimensions, would that be our description of the lake today? Some would think so. Some even argue that the lake is cleaner and clearer now than it was 50 years ago.

Study of Lakes

What proof is there of the “pristine nature”–or lack thereof – of this lake? Even more important, if its condition has eroded, what is the cause? To understand one aspect of this question we have to introduce a few concepts from limnology, the study of lakes.

Like all living creatures, lakes are born, they age, and eventually they die. This aging process is known as eutrophication, and normally takes many centuries. An aged eutrophic lake is characterized by high biological activity resulting in large amounts of biologically generated material, or biomass – much of which is dead and decaying on its bottom.

Such a lake would likely have a substantial amount of “muck” on the bottom and a variety of plants floating on the top. Not the first place one would stop for a drink of water or a swim.

Degree of Eutrophication

The degree of eutrophication covers a continuous scale from young oligotrophic lakes to dying eutrophic lakes. Characterization along this scale is referred to as the trophic status of the lake. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll use three commonly employed categories along this scale: oligotrophic–young, with low biological productivity, mesotrophic middle- aged, and eutrophic – dying, with high biological productivity.

Natural eutrophication occurs via a natural increase in the nutrient levels in a lake. External or allochthonous nutrients are carried naturally into the lake, providing the essential ingredients for increasing its internal or autochthonous biomass.

The two most important limiting nutrients in lakes are nitrogen and phosphorus – biological growth in the lake will be limited by the availability of these two elements.

As a natural process, this biomass is degraded (oxidatively degraded, or oxidized) by aerobic, or oxygen loving bacteria. Natural waters would be expected to contain some molecular oxygen (O2) since it dissolves in water from the air as well as being produced by photosynthetic (light harvesting) organisms (phytoplankton, most commonly algae) in the water itself, and can be mixed throughout the water column.

One might consider that the entities which are built up by photosynthesis during life — creating biomass — are oxidatively degraded upon death.

Oxidation and Decay

As any chemist will tell you, when one thing is oxidized, something else is reduced – this reduced material is also known as an electron acceptor. Dissolved oxygen in the water takes (accepts) electrons from the organic material to be oxidized, and is reduced to ultimately form carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O).2

When sufficient decaying organic matter exists to remove the dissolved oxygen from the water, decay does not cease. Instead, the organisms responsible for the decay or oxidation of the organic matter switch to degradation pathways which can utilize other electron acceptors.

Instead of using oxygen, they may utilize sulfur (as sulfate–SO4). Instead of making water, they make hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a toxic gas which gives the familiar smell of rotten eggs (but also dissolves in water).

To summarize: increased nutrients lead to greater biological productivity which leads to an increase in decaying biomass which leads to a decrease in dissolved oxygen. Aquatic species which rely on oxygen for respiration (e.g. fish of all types) are likely to be imperiled by the resulting anoxic conditions. Among other chemical changes that may be observed due to eutrophic conditions are the increased level of hydrogen sulfide noted above, and an increase in soluble iron levels.3

Acceleration of Nutrient Loading

So the question then becomes, to what extent do the activities of humans contribute to accelerating the entry of allochthonous nutrients into the lake, and thus leading to its speedy demise. Lawn fertilizers, septic tanks, pet waste, land disturbance, and a myriad of other man-made activities may contribute to the nutrient loading of the lake.

This is of great concern, and is the subject of both state and federal regulations. In particular, section 303 of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 dictates that state administrators adopt standards which are “in accordance with the applicable requirements of the Act.” As the stated intent of the Clean Water Act is “Restoration and maintenance of chemical, physical and biological integrity of Nation’s waters...,” reversal or prevention of eutrophication is a high priority.

To assess the state of eutrophication, one can either look at the causes – those allochthonous nutrient sources – or, the effects – the increase in biomass and/or decrease in oxygen. Since the lake’s productivity is likely to be nitrogen and phosphorous limited, one indication of a lake’s trophic status would be its nitrogen and phosphorous levels.

Biological activity makes the water turbid (from the growth of organisms), so another measure would be to see how far an object can be seen in the water.4 To get an indication of the photosynthetic productivity of the lake, a measurement of the chlorophyll-a absorbance of the water can be taken.5

Lake Whatcom Hypolimnion Layer

Dissolved oxygen levels can also be measured as an indication of how much oxidation of organic matter is occurring, and thus of the level of decaying biomass in the lake. In a monomictic lake such as Lake Whatcom, the lake becomes thermally stratified during the summer, and “turns over” or mixes during the late fall.6

During the stratified period, the lower, cooler layer (hypolimnion) is of greatest interest as far as dissolved oxygen content is concerned. This layer is isolated from the surface where additional oxygen could enter by diffusion from the air, and is in contact with the bottom where decay is occurring.

The state of Washington has set surface water quality standards, in keeping with the federal Clean Water Act (Federal Regulation 40 CFR 131), which are promulgated in chapter 173-201A of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC). Particular indicators given there are the total phosphorous (TP) concentration of the lake, and its dissolved oxygen (DO) content.

While the assessment of TP is based on an already determined trophic status, that for DO is given simply as “…no measurable decrease from natural conditions.” Natural conditions are defined as those that existed “…before any human-caused pollution.” This would be presumably be before that description of the crystal clear, sweet tasting lake given in 1858.

Fifteen Years of Data Acquisition

Unfortunately, a dearth of data exists on the historical level of anything in Lake Whatcom. Fortunately, Professor Robin Matthews and her group at Western Washington University have acquired substantial data on the lake over approximately the past 15 years.

There is an indication of low oxygen levels extending back at least 30 years from other data, but are these levels getting worse, or better? The trend is ever important, and it is assessment of that trend from data provided by Professor Matthews which has led to the listing of the lake on the state’s 303(d) list for low DO, and the controversy surrounding it.u

Next Month — Part II

The data—for and against 303(d) listing and the TMDL study.


1. A Historical Geography of the Settlement Around Lake Whatcom Prior to 1920, F. Stanley Moore, June 1973, pg. 17.

2. A popular mnemonic is LEO the lion goes GER: Loss of Electrons equals Oxidation, Gain of Electrons equals Reduction. More information on oxidation and reduction can be obtained in any college level chemistry text.

3. Insoluble ferric iron (Fe3) in the lake bottom sediments is likely to be reduced to more soluble ferrous (Fe2) form in environments low in oxygen.

4. This is often measured via a procedure known as a Secchi disc reading. Various methods of limnological measurement are discussed in standard texts, e.g. Limnological Analyses, R.G. Wetzel and G.E. Likens, W.B. Saunders, 1979.

5. Chlorophyll—a is an essential component of the photosynthetic apparatus, and its absorbance of light gives most plants their green color.

6. Monomictic lakes are defined as those which go through the cycle of thermal stratification and turnover once per year.

Health Hazard

Stewards of the Sewers

by Nancy Grayum

Nancy Grayum is a Sudden Valley resident and an active member of several groups that address healthy water as the source of optimal health for individuals and communities, including Keepers of the Waters, Clean Water Alliance, and People For Puget Sound. You can reach her at: grayum@nas.com.

The sewage overflow from the Water District 10 detention tank in December 2001 resulted in raw sewage flowing across the Sudden Valley golf course into the mouth of Austin Creek and Lake Whatcom. Asleep at the switch were Water District 10, the Whatcom County Health and Human Services Department, and the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE).

On Monday, December 17, Water District 10 Manager Sandy Peterson, told me the flow was diluted with groundwater to the extent that it was not a health hazard. It would become even more diluted after flowing into Lake Whatcom, our drinking water reservoir.

Public Notice Lacking

The DOE took samples at the overflow pipe and in Austin Creek. When the County Health Department read the results four days later (50,000 e.coli colonies per 100 milliliters), they exclaimed, “that’s human sewage!” (Well, it wasn’t goose poop on the golf course, what a relief.)

Chris Chesson of the Whatcom County Health Department requested that Water District 10 post signs at the site warning of the contamination on the ground on Monday, December 17. Water District management said it wasn’t a high traffic area for pedestrians, so they did not follow up until further citizen complaint was voiced at county health.

Sudden Valley maintenance ultimately placed yellow plastic tape around the flow area on Tuesday, five days after the initial flow had begun. Is it bad public relations to tell the truth and to conspicuously mark a site where a sewer overflow occurs?

As a community, Sudden Valley residents were not informed of an immediate health hazard. If the sewer overflows again, Water District 10 should be required to post visible signs warning of contamination so golfers, park and ride drivers, pedestrians and cyclists aren’t wading through sewage residue uninformed.

Sudden Valley Administration should treat such an event as a community health emergency: place notices on cable TV, the web site, all gates, and public buildings so people are made aware of the event and the health risk.

Trust Me

Water District 10 built the detention tank at the entrance to Gate 1 with the claim that it would prevent further sewage overflows and serve 600 additional new residences. As 130 new homes have been added in the past two years, it is already overwhelmed. This may have been true even without the 130 homes, since infiltration seems to be a prime suspect.

They tell us that the sewage overflow is very diluted, not very dangerous. Should it be so diluted? They tell us they are doing all they can, but instead of calling in more trucks and drivers, they open a line allowing raw sewage to flow into the mouth of Austin Creek for four straight days.

They tell us that the new Lake Louise sewer line will divert 60 percent of the flow from Sudden Valley. Is this the old Sudden Valley, or the newly built Sudden Valley? They tell us that they inspect and repair five miles of sewer lines each year. Where?

Well-meaning people with a contradictory mission are ignoring symptoms of a leaking sewer system, which apparently allows a great deal of rainwater to flow into the pipes. Adding a new sewer line will eventually ease the load. Manifest Destiny! Westward Ho!

It’s in My Backyard

A combination of factors caused the sewer to overflow:

1. Saturated soils

2. Overloaded system

3. Heavy rains

4. Poor emergency management by Water District 10, and

5. Poorly maintained sewer lines.

The new Sudden Valley Mission Statement reads:

Sudden Valley is a diverse community with many parks and recreational facilities, dedicated to securing the highest possible quality of life for our members while preserving our abundant natural resources and the quality of the Lake Whatcom watershed.

An Opportunity to Provide Leadership

Homeowners in Sudden Valley do have an opportunity now to provide leadership in stewarding the watershed. Our first responsibility is to care for what we already own. When our gutter or groundwater drains are leaky or overflowing, we repair or replace them. When our underground sewer pipes are in disrepair here in Sudden Valley, the Association Board and Management should insist that they be repaired or replaced.

These old clay pipes, lying on sandstone for more than 30 years may be a primary cause for the sewage overflows. If ground water is infiltrating our sewer lines, then does it follow that during dry periods sewage is leaking from these lines into the groundwater that flows through our yards, parks, and streets?

Water District 10 should take advantage of grant opportunities to pursue aggressive repairs on the sewer infrastructure already in place. The Department of Ecology, Sudden Valley Association, City of Bellingham, Whatcom County Health Department, Whatcom County Executive, and Whatcom County Council should demand that Water District 10 correct problems already in place with the same enthusiasm with which they are laying new lines and accommodating more building permits.


Repenting Good Behavior

by Dan Warner

Dan Warner grew up in Seattle where he also attended University of Washington law school. He moved to Squalicum Lake Road in 1975. He is a professor of business legal studies in the accounting department at WWU.

About twenty years ago I was driving into town and listening to news about the number of “new housing starts.” That more new housing starts is good, and fewer bad, was understood: more is better.

But as I looked at the new housing starts along Lake Whatcom, I had some other thoughts: there is more traffic coming, and more paving, pollution, and congestion; more trees cut down, more bulldozing, more consumption and dislocation and destruction of every non-human living thing. And more the quality of our lives decreases.

Thoreau wrote: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” What demon possess most of us that we behave so well, so willing to call ourselves “consumers,” and what are we going to do about it?

Reality Is Socially Constructed

Reality is socially constructed. Today it is constructed by corporate media conglomerates like Disney, AOL/Time-Warner, General Electric (MSNBC), Gannett, and so on. Their interest is not in promoting a balanced view of life, of reality. They make quarterly profits by selling advertising and promoting the belief that constant material acquisition makes most of a good life.

These corporate media conglomerates artfully condition people to spend money on marginal or harmful goods, sold most effectively by emotional associations made in seconds. They have generated mass spending all out of proportion to any real need or societal good, and convinced most of us that the world exists to fulfill humans’ materialistic fantasies, instead of existing to sustain life.

They succeed partly because humans have, apparently, an ancient predisposition to show off our power and importance through conspicuous consumption. And the more unnecessary and wasteful the consumption (enormous houses and SUVs), the more power is projected.

Tendencies to Conspicuous Consumption

Tendencies to conspicuous consumption were formerly tempered by a traditional construction of reality promoted by family, church, and the small-town influence. But today the modern corporate media and their customers, while beating the First Amendment drum, frustrate attempts to present a different, fuller, construction of reality.

They resist the publics’ efforts to control any kind of media content (notwithstanding Federal Communications Act provisions that broadcasting be in the public interest), including children’s programming, television, video-game and movie violence, and advertising for liquor, tobacco, or prescription drugs. Meanwhile, they press their acceptance onto classrooms, sports arenas and events; they take over the exterior of our buses.

These media conglomerates—about seven of them now—own almost all the major radio and television networks, newspapers, magazines, book publishers (and theme parks!). They own the major bookstores and promote—or not—such books as they see fit.

They decide what’s news, frame the public agenda on all issues, insist that our U.S.-style consumerism is the world’s tonic, and use powerful law firms, influential lobbyists and heavy campaign contributions to block large-scale protests or reform. They deny exposure to politicians who do not have the money to buy it; they regularly harass and intimidate their critics.

The free speech threat today is not from government, but from huge multinational corporations. Notwithstanding their nearly complete control of the media, the world order they espouse is so fundamentally offensive to most people that it can—apparently—only be imposed by undemocratic bodies such as the IMF, WTO and by granting the U.S. president “fast track” free-trade negotiation authority, which would by-pass any real democratic debate about “free” trade.

It’s Up to Us

What to do? Well, obviously—if we believe in democracy—we must elect progressive candidates. We need antitrust enforcement and media reform! But up against the power and influence of huge corporations, for whom in many ways the government is now run, how to elect such people? I’m sorry I have no remarkable answers. You know the answers.

First, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” People are influenced by their peers: those of us concerned about sustainability must model appropriate behavior in our domestic and business affairs. A-1 Builders (Rick Dubrow)—featured in the December Whatcom Watch (page 1)—does that very effectively, and so does the RE Store and the Community Food Co-Op. How is your office, home, yard, car? Start where you are, and at least don’t let things get worse!

Second, effective communication is essential. Write or email your government representatives at all levels: discuss these issues! You think it does no good: it does some good, really. And letters to the editor—at least others of our ilk can know that we’re not alone. Talk with family, colleagues, and associates. And of course participate in local progressive organizations and support good candidates for public office. Be prepared, during election time, to spend some money supporting them.

If we model good behavior and effectively communicate our interest and concern, we will be empowering others and heading in the right direction, instead of the wrong one. The demons that possess most of us to “behave so well” will lose their influence, and we will—as a society—develop a more expansive and finer vision of reality.


Right in Our Backyard: The Pacific Northwest Trail

by Erik Burge

Erik Burge is the education coordinator for the Pacific Northwest Trail Association. He currently lives in Bellingham and writes an outdoor column for The Every Other Weekly.

As many Northwest Washington trail users are probably well aware—our soggy, rugged little corner of the nation hosts a particularly breath-taking and challenging section of one of America’s premiere long-distance hiking trails—the Pacific Crest Trail. However, many would be surprised to learn that the Fourth Corner plays host to a particularly breath-taking and challenging section of another of America’s premier (although lesser-known) long-distance hiking trails – the Pacific Northwest Trail.

The Pacific Northwest Trail suffers from an identity crisis. More often than not, because of their similar-sounding names and the relative geographic proximity, local hikers mistake the Pacific Northwest Trail for the Pacific Coast Trail or vice versa. Yet these two trails possess striking differences in route orientation and character that for day hikers, backpackers and through-hikers alike warrant careful attention.

The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,650-mile footpath that travels in a north/south direction through the states of California, Oregon and Washington over the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains.

Pacific Northwest Trail Runs East/West

The Pacific Northwest Trail is a 1,200-mile route that travels in an east/west direction from Glacier/Waterton National Park, Montana to Cape Alava on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Since the Pacific Crest Trail already owns a world-wide reputation, this article will focus on the lesser known, but just as effective, Pacific Northwest Trail.

Each trail takes on the characteristics of the terrain over which it passes. When compared to the Pacific Coast Trail, the Pacific Northwest Trail offers the hiker a strikingly different experience. Beside route orientation and distance (the Pacific Northwest Trail being 1,450 miles shorter) their most striking difference is grade.

For the majority of its length, the Pacific Coast Trail utilizes existing trails to contour near the crests of its two mountain ranges, thus ensuring the trail user with a predominantly alpine wilderness experience. The coast trail user will encounter primarily marmots, mountain goats, rocky ridge tops, streams, creeks, lakes, glaciers, alpine meadows and other backpackers.

The Pacific Northwest Trail experience, although in places similar to the PCT’s, offers a far more varied experience. Crossing over no less than six mountain ranges, the Columbia River and Puget Sound, the Pacific Northwest Trail utilizes a wide array of transportation corridors including but not limited to trails, logging roads, cattle paths, abandoned railroad grades and even a ferry service!

Varied Terrain

Although it certainly provides the hiker with a bounty of sustained wilderness tracts (126 miles through the Pasayten Wilderness Area), the Pacific Northwest Trail guides the hiker through a challenging variety of topographical and climatic regions, elevations and population centers ranging from rural, agricultural-based communities of Idaho and Montana to and more densely populated urban areas of Puget Sound.

The Pacific Northwest Trail user might encounter a grizzly bear, a herd of black angus cattle, active volcanic peaks, hay fields, abandoned mine shafts and 7-11 convenience stores. A herd of mountain goats, a pod of Orcas, star fish, porpoises, car auto dealerships, housing developments, trains, supertankers, white water rapids, hikers, road cyclists, mountain bikers, ranchers, loggers, cowboys, truckers, skateboarders, motor-cross bikes, four-wheelers, logging trucks, clear-cuts and 20-foot surf to name a few.

On the Pacific Coast Trail you must endure; on the Pacific Northwest Trail you must endure and adapt.

As a trail user in Whatcom and Skagit County you have probably (if at all) first encountered evidence of the Pacific Northwest Trail up on Blanchard Mountain. You might have taken note of the wide variety of signs and markers inscribed with the acronym PNT or caught sight of the official PNT blaze (a single white paint mark on prominent rocks and trees) or noticed the PNT “Talking Rock” Interpretive Boulder at the Oyster Dome (aka “Bat Caves”) Trailhead on Chuckanut Drive.

Perhaps, after seeing one of these Pacific Northwest Trail markers, your curiosity was piqued and it propelled you up the trail eagerly anticipating the next blaze or directional sign only to be left, many miles later, lost and exhausted wondering “So where the hell did it go?”

Through Whatcom County

Approximately 140 miles of the Pacific Northwest Trail’s 1,200-mile route wind and twist their way through Whatcom and Skagit County proper. Through state and private lands where a large percentage of the Pacific Northwest Trail has been constructed by volunteer crews, you will likely encounter some form of trail signage.

Where the Pacific Northwest Trail crosses through National Forest and National Park however, the signage disappears completely. If you’ve tramped any of the classic North Cascade trails on the Mt. Baker Ranger District or North Cascades National park, chances are good you’ve already hiked many miles of the Northwest trail without realizing it. Little Beaver, Big Beaver, East Bank of Ross Lake, Chilliwack River, Hannegan Pass, Welcome Pass, High Divide and Elbow Lake trails are all part of the Pacific Northwest Trail.

Unfortunately, federal agencies like the USDA Forest Service and the National Park System are unable to sign the PNT route through their lands because it has not yet received federal recognition as a National Recreation Trail or National Scenic Trail.

National Recreation Trail Status

Achieving National Recreation Trail status for the PNT is one of the top priorities of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, the private non-profit agency who has managed the trail since 1977. Founded by Ron Strickland (the original PNT route finder), the association quickly earned a reputation amongst National Forests and Parks as a rogue agency unwilling to compromise its official route location to accommodate environmentally sensitive habitats and ecosystems.

That all changed with the 1980 publication of the Final National Scenic Trail Study Report. This document, a joint effort of the Forest Service and National Park Service admitted that the PNT crossed some of America’s most varied and scenic landscapes but concluded that, “it is overwhelmingly evident that development of the trail is neither feasible or desirable.”

The study claimed that the proposed route would promote damage to sensitive alpine ecosystems and estimated its cost to taxpayers to the tune of $39 to $106 million.

Pacific Northwest Trail Association Undeterred

Undeterred, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association leaders adopted their management and fund-raising strategy for the better, cooperating with public land managers, recruiting volunteers and making great strides to re-gain support at both the federal and grassroots levels.

During the environmental movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the association did an about-face, taking on increasing responsibility for land management issues by cooperating with local public land managers to relocate the route around sensitive animal habitats and fragile ecosystems.

In 1998 for instance, when the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest officially abandoned the Swift Creek Trail (a vital PNT shortcut around the east flanks of Mt. Baker) to comply with the newly established and hotly contested North Cascades Grizzly Habitat Corridor, the association worked closely with Mt. Baker District to establish a new route north of the mountain via High Divide and Canyon Ridge.

As a result of such cooperation, the association now enjoys enthusiastic support from Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, North Cascades National Park and Olympic National Park. With its main office and the core nucleus of its grassroots support based primarily in northwest Washington, however, establishing such a positive, working relationship with those National Forests east of the Cascades (most of whom still adhere to the advice of the 1980 study) has proved more difficult.

Corporate Donations

Fortunately, that’s about to change. Two recent developments have helped propel the Pacific Northwest Trail Association into prominence amongst conservation groups and land management agencies alike. In 1999, thanks to a $250,000 donation from the Ford Motor Company, the association was able to hire its first full-time employee—executive director Jeri Krampetz who in turn helped secured funding from a variety of private agencies, including Tully’s Coffee and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Such corporate-based contributions have enabled the association to pledge its long-term commitment to serving those ecosystems and communities through which it passes by developing an education program called SKY (Service Knowledge Youth) and establishing the Pacific Northwest Trail Association Native Plant Nursery.

Local Schools Host SKY Program

SKY’s (Service Knowledge Youth) mission is to create many future generations of public land stewards by giving high school students in local school districts the opportunity to earn credits and gain paid job experience through trail-related service-learning projects. During the summer of 2001, this nine-week-long program was hosted by four public school districts in northwestern Washington, including State Street Alternative High School in Sedro-Woolley and Nooksack High School.

Combined, students from these two local SKY programs performed nearly 3,000 hours worth of major reconstruction projects on Canyon Ridge Trail in the Mt. Baker Ranger District, conducted a variety of biologic/geologic-based research projects and learned how to responsibly recreate on and care for our local treasure trove of public lands.

Through establishing a partnership with Bellingham-based Workforce Development Council, the association was able to outfit and provide a wage for each and every member of its SKY crews.

For the past year and a half, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association Native Plant Nursery has served both Skagit and Whatcom Counties by providing low to no cost native plants for salmon habitat restoration projects in local rivers, creeks and streams and re-vegetation projects on both federal and state-owned recreation lands.

Through its continued efforts to serve the ecosystems and communities along the PNT, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association has garnered enough support from federal agencies to the point where National Recreation Trail Status could be a reality as soon as next year.

Trail in Our Own Backyard

Last year, 2001, saw the publication of the long-awaited 2nd edition of the official PNT Guide, a fully updated 396-page guidebook with current route descriptions and maps written by PNT-founder Ron Strickland.

After a long drought of through-hiking activity (to hike the entire distance of the trail in one sustained effort) throughout the 1990s (34 through-hikers have completed the trail to date), the publication of the PNT guidebook immediately prompted a number of through-hiking attempts last summer (vivid accounts of which can be accessed via the Pacific Northwest Trail Association web site at www.pnta.org.)

Meanwhile, as with all long-distance hiking trails (even the 70-year-old + Appalachian Trail), the PNT route is a work in progress. Although public land management policies and the ever-changing political climate will dictate the official status of the trail, the character of the PNT remains constant, dictated only by the shape and spirit of the terrain through which it passes.

From the fjord-like scenery of Waterton Lake to the pounding Pacific surf, over mountains, through old-growth forests and clear cuts, wilderness areas, ranch lands and towns, the Pacific Northwest Trail brings us closer in touch with the land and communities in which we live…and it’s right in our backyard.

For more information about the PNT, full color maps of Blanchard or Anderson Mountain, trail condition reports, or information about volunteer opportunities please contact:

Pacific Northwest Trail Association, 24854 Charles Jones Memorial Circle #4. Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284, Phone: (360) 854-9415, E-mail: pnt@pnt.org.

New Subdivision

Padden Heights Phase II: Another Parkhurst Affront to the Environment?

by Brady Green and Kevin R. Hoskins

Brady Green (360) 738-1566 and Kevin R. Hoskins and their families are Padden Heights residents in the Lake Padden watershed in Whatcom County.

We wrote this article on behalf of the fourteen families who live in Phase I of the Padden Heights development located on Cedar Creek Lane just outside the City of Bellingham and above Lake Padden. Everyone in this neighborhood is very concerned about the potential negative impact of Phase II of this proposed “planned unit development” that is to be located due north of our street.

A planned unit development is the master plan dictated by the city or county planning office for a particular single family residential development. It can also mean “planned urban development” which is basically the master plan for a mini-city.

The planned unit development outlines housing density, setbacks, where roads will go, wetland preservation areas, etc. Padden Heights II is the second phase of the Padden Heights “planned unit development” of which our street (Cedar Creek Lane) was Phase I.

We fear that unless significant changes are made to Phase II by Sandvig Enterprises, LLC, the “planned development” will not only endanger our homes but will also degrade the water quality of Lake Padden, the 160 acre lake that was South Bellingham’s drinking water supply until 1968.

We can’t help but ask ourselves: will our homes be exposed to potential mudslide damage again? Because that is exactly what already happened in 1998 when a mudslide resulting from illegal clear-cutting in Parkhurst, a 103-home development located above and to the west of Padden Heights Phase I and II, came rushing down 48th Street. (Whatcom Watch, December 1998, page 1 and May 1999, page 1).

Illegal Clear-Cutting Called Disaster in 1998

Whatcom County residents may recall The Bellingham Herald coverage of Bellingham City Council meetings about tree removal violations in the Parkhurst development during the fall of 1998 and the subsequent mudslide in November 1998 that originated from this development. This illegal clear-cutting was characterized at the time as a “disaster” by Mayor Mark Asmundson.

The mudslide occurred during the first fall rains after all the native forest was removed the previous summer. The effects of the mudslide were felt all the way down 48th Street to Samish Way. It washed out driveways, flooded basements of residents along 48th Street and Harrison Avenue, and plugged a stormwater pipe that flows into the Padden Heights “planned unit development” bioswale that drains into Lake Padden.

In the last six months, Phase II of the Parkhurst development has been cleared for building lots. Parkhurst Phase II, combined with Phase I and the recently cleared Samish Highlands, located immediately to the north, now form a large area newly cleared of natural forest vegetation.

This nearly two-square-mile cleared area, creates a new swath that runs between the summit of Samish Hill on the east and 40th Street on the west all the way to the Ridgemont area and Lakeway Drive.

The Padden Heights “planned unit development” is situated at the north end of 48th Street in the Samish Hill area. It is also about three-tenths of a mile north of Lake Padden, located just inside the Whatcom County line (48th Street), and east of the Samish Neighborhood, which is in the Bellingham city limits.

Between Parkhurst and Wildflower Developments

Phase I of the Padden Heights “planned unit development,” which is approximately five acres in size, consists of fourteen family homes built between 1997 and 2000 along Cedar Creek Lane. As proposed, Phase II of the Padden Heights “planned unit development,” which covers approximately eight acres, will be located immediately north of, and uphill from, Phase I. Phase II is located between the Parkhurst development on the west and the Wildflower development to the east.

The Wildflower development at the north end of Governor Road, consists of approximately 30-40 homes, and is located immediately east of Padden Heights Phase II. Next to the Wildflower development, just across Governor Road to the east, is the South Hills development.

The South Hills development, which consists of 60-100 homes, continues east all the way to Yew Street Road. We understand that Skeers Construction is responsible for the Wildflower and South Hills developments.

We, like all of the families that live on Cedar Creek Lane, are very concerned about the removal of the forest vegetation on the steep hillsides that would occur in Phase II of the Padden Heights “planned unit development.” Our major concern is that the existing water runoff and drainage problems, already being experienced by property owners, will be aggravated by the removal of forest vegetation from the steep slopes above us.

Three of the houses on the north side of Cedar Creek Lane have already experienced water problems. This winter, rising creek water has threatened the foundation of one house on the west end of our development. The water has, to varying degrees, flooded crawl spaces and almost seeped into homes.

Environmental Havoc

As proposed, Phase II of the Padden Heights “planned unit development”:

Will eliminate most of the native second growth forest (30-50-year-old cedar, Douglas-fir, big leaf maple and alder trees) which is an important corridor connecting Greenways forest lands at Lake Padden to the south with planned and potential Greenways to the north all the way to Lakeway.

Will eliminate some of the last remaining intact forest in the northern portion of the Lake Padden watershed. Forests to the north of Lake Padden are dwindling very rapidly and the natural watershed protection values that these forests provide are diminishing proportionally.

Could affect the water quality of Lake Padden which is a valuable secondary water supply for Bellingham and as such must be protected, especially in light of the recent uncertainties about the Lake Whatcom water quality and the Middle Fork Nooksack River water supply.

Could affect Lake Padden recreational uses such as fishing and swimming as well as wildlife habitat Will result in clearing of approximately eight acres of steep forest land located directly above seven of the houses built in Padden Heights Phase I.

Will increase the risk of aggravating existing drainage and runoff problems that are affecting at least four of the houses on the north side of Cedar Creek Lane.

Without adequate riparian buffers along the eastern portion of the “planned unit development” will result in increased water runoff and sedimentation to the stream, wetland and pond system that drains into Lake Padden.

Planned Unit Developments

According to information provided to us by the Whatcom County Public Works Department, “planned unit developments” are large plat developments that are planned and constructed as a unit. “Planned unit developments” are supposed to allow zoning and subdivision regulations to be varied to allow design innovations and special features that will benefit the community.

The Whatcom County Code (Chp. 20.85) indicates that the purpose of “planned unit developments” is to provide mutual benefits to the general public, encourage conservation of natural elements and open space in a manner harmonious with the surrounding on-site land use activities, among other things.

Our Padden Heights neighborhood group, representing families in Phase I, met with the developer, Sandvig Enterprises, LLC a number of times as well as with representatives from the engineering, land use and planning divisions of the Whatcom County Public Works Department.

We have suggested changes (buffers, additions to the Greenways system along the stream to the east, etc.) to the Phase II plan consistent with the purpose of “planned unit developments” that would provide reasonable protection to the stream and wetland system, the Lake Padden watershed (a valuable public resource) and to our properties. Unfortunately, however, our efforts to date have not been successful in resolving this problem.

Therefore, if you are concerned about this development and its potential impact to the Lake Padden watershed and Lake Padden itself, please contact Kevin R. Hoskins (360) 734-2934 or your elected representatives.

Please help us keep Lake Padden as clean as Lake Whatcom should be.

Whatcom Watch Online