Before We Achieve “Net Ecological Gain,” We Need to Define It

by Lorraine Loomis

Lorraine Loomis USEPA Photo by Eric Vance. Public domain image

When we talk about how to recover salmon — the math should be simple. The protection of existing habitat plus restoration of degraded habitat should equal a net gain in ecosystem function, leading to more fish.

Yet every report produced in recent years says the same thing: Our ecological health is getting worse. We see this most clearly in our salmon populations, which continue to decline because their habitat is being lost faster than it can be restored. 

We know that urban development is linked to many of our environmental problems, including air and water pollution, and habitat loss. The only way for salmon to come out ahead is to protect against the loss of their habitat before development occurs. Urban planners do this all the time when they account for the impacts that development will have on traffic and utilities. Why don’t we do it for the ecosystem? 

Our land-use regulations favor development over habitat. Developers are permitted to build now and make some attempt to repay the environmental costs later. We know that a sapling does not provide the same ecosystem benefits as a mature tree, and yet some cities only require one new tree to be planted for every one that is cut down. 

There’s a long lag time between the destruction of habitat and restoration efforts meant to make up for it. With this approach, there’s no way to catch up to habitat loss. Forget about seeing a net gain.

That needs to change. The first step is a study funded in the last state legislative session that aims to define “net ecological gain” and recommend how to apply it to state environmental and land-use laws.  

We hope this will be a sharp departure from the current approach seen in the Shoreline Management Act and Growth Management Act. At best, these laws attempt to balance development with conservation by trading environmental impacts in one place with improvements elsewhere, not necessarily in the same watershed. 

These management laws are supposed to require “no net loss” of ecological function. But like the term “net ecological gain,” there is no agreed-upon legal definition for “no net loss” and no way to evaluate conditions or changes over time.  

Meanwhile, tribal, state and local governments have been trying to restore habitat loss using grants, increased taxes and other sources of funding. Despite this good work across the region, we continue to lose ground. We are unable to keep up with the cumulative effects of ongoing habitat loss. 

We need to take a hard look at how we live here, so that we can all continue to thrive in a way that respects the environment.

Maybe that means building an accurate balance sheet for a true accounting of individual and collective environmental impacts, so that we can remedy them before they occur. Certainly, up front we need to prevent any new developmental impacts that harm existing habitat crucial to salmon recovery.

Some developers may say that changing the way they do business is too expensive and will damage the economy. But tribes also have development interests. The difference is we aim to spend more on the front end to protect the environment on the back end. A broken ecosystem hurts all of us, including our economy. 

We can’t keep allowing short-term economic gain at the expense of our salmon, orcas and other natural resources. We’re all paying the price of a steady decline in the ecosystems that sustain us and our economies. Tribes are facing immediate loss of our treaty-protected rights to fish, hunt and gather. 

If we want different results, we need to change our approach. We think the strategy is simple: Growth and development should be required to acknowledge and support ecological function, not destroy it.  

Lorraine Loomis is chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, This column represents the natural resources management interests and concerns of the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington.

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