Conservation: Your Voice is Needed More Than Ever

By Bob Sallinger, Director of Conservation

While the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented and horrific, perhaps there is also one powerful and positive lesson that we can take from this situation: we have the ability to make rapid and fundamental change at a local, continental, and global scale. The environmental challenges we face, from the sixth mass biodiversity extinction to global climate change, represent existential threats that dwarf COVID-19. While we would never want to have to make the type of frantic transition we have had to make in the COVID-19 crisis, we also know from overwhelming scientific data that we are currently moving in a manner that is far too slow, incremental, and tepid when it comes to our deteriorating environment. The COVID-19 response, if nothing else, opens our eyes to the potential to make rapid and fundamental change. The skies clearing over formerly smog-shrouded cities and the wildlife emerging onto quieted landscapes serve as fleeting ghosts of a future possible…if we are willing to make real change. 

The way in which we do conservation during the COVID-19 crisis has shifted dramatically, but the importance of speaking out has never been more clear. Critical decisions at the local, state, and federal level are still advancing, and while some have slowed down, others have accelerated as anti-environmental interests try to take advantage of the chaos. 

The following are a few of the landscape-changing battles ahead.

A stream within the Bull Run Watershed
Bull Run Watershed, photo by PDX Water Bureau

Columbia River Salmon Recovery

For the better part of three decades, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has thumbed its nose at the law, the courts, and the public as it has failed time and time again to develop a plan to protect and recover federally listed salmon from the impacts of the federal hydropower system (the dams). The Corps has been sued and lost five times during that period for its inadequate plans. Instead of addressing the dams, the Corps has focused resources on relentless persecution of natural predators of salmon such as Double-crested Cormorants and sea lions. 

Coho Salmon, photo by BLM

The science clearly shows that salmon recovery is dependent on two things: removal of four obsolete dams on the Snake River and improving flows over the dams on the Columbia. In late February, the Corps released another draft plan that failed to address these concerns and provide the public with an outrageously short 45-day comment period—a timeline they stubbornly stuck to even as the COVID crisis exploded in its midst. Bird Alliance of Oregon is proud to be part of a coalition of groups demanding real solutions to this decades-old crisis, but we have no confidence that the Corps will step up. In the coming months we will be working to have the Northwest Congressional Delegation step in and develop solutions where the Corps has repeatedly failed.

I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion

Nothing is more representative of our failure to address global climate change than our approach to transportation infrastructure which remains mired in 1950s style dogma. From its inception, the I-5 project has been a boondoggle in search of a rationale. The data clearly shows that the project will not address congestion and is extremely low on the priority list in terms of safety. Yet ODOT has continued to advance this project for more than a decade. A glimmer of hope appeared in April 2019 when an overwhelming array of community stakeholders  demanded that ODOT do a comprehensive environmental impact statement to assess the project and explore alternatives.

Politicians who had sat on their hands at Metro, City of Portland, and in the governor’s office appeared to heed the call and demanded more review. Unfortunately in April, even as costs ballooned from $500 million to more than $800 million and the COVID-19 crisis exploded, ODOT decided to advance the project without an EIS, and local political and state leadership mostly evaporated. However, the battle is far from over—there are many opportunities ahead to reform or abandon this boondoggle.

Columbia River Levee System

For a century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has built levee systems with reckless disregard for the natural functioning of ecosystems. The arrogance of the Corps’ approach has manifested itself in a series of tragic levee failures in recent decades as water finds a way. Nobody questions the need to keep our communities safe from flooding, but it is long past time for the Corps to develop a paradigm that integrates rather than subjugates the environment and environmental justice. The modernization of the Columbia River Levee system, which provides flood protection for more than 24,000 acres of historic Columbia River floodplain, is just such an opportunity. 

Belted Kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher, photo by Scott Carpenter

In January, the Corps released a draft plan for modernizing the levee system that ignored environmental impacts and environmental justice issues, flagrantly underestimated costs, failed to fully address existing deficiencies in the levee system, and gave the public a woefully short 45 days to comment: in short, business as usual. Despite strong condemnation from stakeholders including conservation organizations, environmental justice organizations, neighborhood groups, and the Yakama Nation Fisheries, local jurisdictions signaled their support for the Corps’ plan, and in April, as the COVID crisis exploded, the Corps advanced their plan for final approval in Washington, D.C. In the coming year, the fatal flaws in this plan will only become more apparent. So too, will the opposition.

What do these three projects have in common?

Each one perpetuates exactly the type of anachronistic policies and practices that have precipitated the current environmental crisis. Each one made a mockery of the public review process. In each instance local jurisdictions with stated commitment to environmental health and justice rolled over and played dead. And in each case, the lead agencies chose to hit the accelerator, even as our communities struggled to cope with the COVID-19 crisis. 

Under ordinary circumstances, Bird Alliance of Oregon practices full-contact conservation. It is a work of hearings, committees, meetings, events, protests, research, and field work. However, we have rapidly made the transition to a fully digitized universe and are excited by how our activists have risen to the occasion. We are seeing a remarkable response to action alerts, and our activists have flooded recent online hearings. We have known for a long time that fundamental change is necessary. We can now see that it is also possible. Your voice is more important than ever in the age of COVID.