This episode of Making Waves Conversations features an interview with Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, and Dennis McLerran, chair of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council. In the interview, Laura and Dennis discuss what they find most exciting about the new Action Agenda and how it will help guide funding for recovery. They also speak about how we need to get more partners and community members involved with Puget Sound recovery, some high- priority near-term goals, and how people can engage with the Action Agenda.
Laura Blackmore is the executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership. She has spent her career successfully navigating complex natural resource management challenges in the Pacific Northwest. At the Partnership, she has substantially improved the strategic focus of the agency’s boards and reengaged diverse partners in the recovery effort across Puget Sound. She’s been with the Partnership since 2015 and in her tenure has served in a number of roles, including deputy director, director of partner engagement, and the boards program director. She’s also represented the Partnership on the Governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force.
Dennis McLerran is the chair of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council. He served as the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 10, which encompasses Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and Pacific Northwest Indian Country, from 2010 until January 2017. He currently serves on the board of directors for the Stockholm Environment Institute U.S., a research affiliate of Tufts University, specializing in sustainable development and environmental issues. His previous experience includes serving as executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, the regional air quality agency for King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish Counties, president of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, and chairman of the Land Use and Environmental Law Section of the Washington State Bar Association.
Jon Bridgman: Hi. My name is Jon Bridgman, and I’m the communication manager at the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency formed to lead our region’s collective effort to protect and restore Puget Sound. Our online magazine, Making Waves, features stories about the people working to protect and recover Puget Sound.
This issue of Making Waves focuses on the 2022-2026 Action Agenda, our community’s shared plan to advance Puget Sound recovery over the next four years. And for this episode of Making Waves Conversations, I spoke with Laura Blackmore, the executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, and Dennis McLerran, chair of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council, about their thoughts on the 2022-2026 Action Agenda.
Jon Bridgman: What do you find most exciting about this new Action Agenda? And what is the Action Agenda? What does it hope to do?
Laura Blackmore: Well, all right. What is the Action Agenda is a big question. It is our collaboratively developed action plan to guide recovery over the next four years. And it is, I think, equally focused on Puget Sound and salmon recovery. And I am excited about how focused it is. We boiled everything down. This is a very complex ecosystem—complex human ecosystem—and we’ve boiled it down to 31 strategies. We also, I think, built in a lot of flexibility. I think one of the things we learned from our last Action Agenda is that things change a lot in four years, and so we provided a lot of information to guide recovery over the next four years but didn’t get really rigid and specific. And so I’m hoping that that means the community has provided itself, essentially, with guidance on how to move forward as things change.
And I’m also excited because for the first time, I think we deliberately integrated human well-being considerations into the development of this Action Agenda. And that’s definitely a learning process for us. And I’m looking forward to seeing where we go with that over the next four years.
“Puget Sound is a food source to many. It’s a source of spiritual well-being for many of us. A lot of people move to the Pacific Northwest and this area because of their perception that this is a wonderful place to live, and Puget Sound is a key component of that.” — Dennis McLerran
Dennis McLerran: So, Laura, you stole my thunder a bit. The human well-being component being a higher-level piece of work emphasized in this Action Agenda is something that I am excited about. Puget Sound is a food source to many. It’s a source of spiritual well-being for many of us. A lot of people move to the Pacific Northwest and this area because of their perception that this is a wonderful place to live, and Puget Sound is a key component of that.
So that human well-being component and how we ensure that, as I said before, future generations have this wonderful place as a source of inspiration, and a source of spiritual well-being, as well as being able to go out and fish for salmon, is something that’s really important and not something that we’ve emphasized in past Action Agendas like it is in this one. So all of the actions that are being taken to restore habitat and address stormwater and restore shellfish beds and that sort of thing also are reflected in the human well-being side of things. So I’m excited to see how we move forward with that and begin to address that in a more significant way.
Jon Bridgman: Why was human well-being included in this Action Agenda?
Dennis McLerran: [The reason] for inclusion of this was we heard from our tribal partners how important the health of Puget Sound is to their spiritual well-being. For them, the salmon, the orca, the water is part of who they are. And so part of their well-being is a healthy Puget Sound, and restoring their ability to fish and not being the generation that loses that opportunity to fish for king salmon. So I think we did hear from some of our partners that this element is something important to add to the Action Agenda.
“Healthy working land, viable agriculture, a sustainable timber industry, the ability to go out and harvest shellfish on a beach or kayak or swim where the water is clean—all of these things contribute to human quality of life.” — Laura Blackmore
Laura Blackmore: We included human well-being in the Action Agenda this time because it’s actually always been part of our mission. The legislature, when it created the agency, gave us six goals to strive for, and two of them relate to humans, a healthy human population and a vibrant quality of life. And I think we just haven’t really known how to grapple with that. And we’re maturing and getting better at thinking about those kinds of issues.
And like Dennis said, our tribal partners have told us how important Puget Sound is to their own well-being. And they’re not alone. Right? Healthy working land, viable agriculture, a sustainable timber industry, the ability to go out and harvest shellfish on a beach or kayak or swim where the water is clean—all of these things contribute to human quality of life. And I think we really saw that during the pandemic. There wasn’t a lot of opportunities other than to go outside. And I think people realized how important this place is to them. So I’m excited to have this be really truly front and center in this Action Agenda.
Jon Bridgman: So looking forward, as we implement the Action Agenda, there’s a lot happening at the national level with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, other federal funding and also state funding. It’s a good time for funding for Puget Sound. How does that Action Agenda help guide that funding?
“…I think the way that we crafted this Action Agenda with our partners will really be helpful over the next four years as our federal agency partners are figuring out how to put this new federal money on the ground.” — Laura Blackmore
Dennis McLerran: So I can start by saying, first, our Puget Sound caucus at the federal level, our congressional delegation, has really helped deliver investments from the federal government that will help us achieve the targets in the Action Agenda. They have been outstanding in terms of understanding the connection between federal dollars and the recovery of Puget Sound and how necessary that is to us having the resources at all levels—whether it’s local governments or regional governments, or for the state agencies and federal agencies to be able to actually go out and restore habitat, to bring shellfish beds back, to be able to invest in key things that are really important to demonstrating that Puget Sound can recover in ways that we know are possible.
So these new funds are critically important to implementing many of the actions that are identified in the Action Agenda, right down to the local implementing organization level. So it’s really important that we have these new resources and our federal delegation really deserves a tremendous amount of credit for bringing those new resources to the table.
Laura Blackmore: Absolutely. And then I will just say I think the way that we crafted this Action Agenda with our partners will really be helpful over the next four years as our federal agency partners are figuring out how to put this new federal money on the ground. The Action Agenda has in every strategy identified key opportunities for action, and so that’s a great resource for folks as they’re thinking about “How do I want to bring my project forward into these funding opportunities?” And so, hopefully, people will use it as a guide. And we do know that our federal agency partners have reached out to us to ask about the Action Agenda. I think they see it as a really shining example of the depth and breadth of local knowledge here in the Puget Sound region and are looking forward to funding projects that are supported by the Action Agenda.
Dennis McLerran: And I would just add that the Action Agenda is really intended to be—and does, I think, reflect—a collaboration, a collective effort by all of our partners from the local government level, the tribes, the federal agencies, the state agencies. All of the groups that have organized around the recovery of Puget Sound see the Action Agenda as a place to put the most important priorities for work to restore Puget Sound. So it really provides a roadmap, a guide for where those resources can be spent most effectively. So I’m very excited about the opportunities that we have in front of us. We’re at a point where we have an unprecedented level of resources to implement the Action Agenda in a way that reflects the work of all those partners.
Jon Bridgman: Who are some of the partners that we still need to reach out to? Are there folks in the Puget Sound region that we still need to get connected into this recovery network?
Dennis McLerran: Well, I would first say that we want everyone to be engaged in this effort. There are small actions that everyone can take, from what they do with their lawn fertilizers and how they approach septic tanks. So everyone needs to be involved. But I would actually like to see some of our big business players more engaged and reflecting that their employees who live here and value Puget Sound need to see that the companies are really embracing the work of the Action Agenda and that they’re committed to it as well. So I think that’s an area where we could see some further engagement and some further improvement. And we’ll be reaching out to some of those folks to seek partnerships.
“…[W]e want everyone to be engaged in this effort. There are small actions that everyone can take, from what they do with their lawn fertilizers and how they approach septic tanks. So everyone needs to be involved.” — Dennis McLerran
Laura Blackmore: I agree with Dennis. And I would add one of the things that’s on my mind, especially as we’re thinking about all this Infrastructure Act funding, is working more closely with transportation agencies, for example, to say, “How is what you’re doing in the transportation space related to Puget Sound recovery and how can we meld those things together?”
Another area that I think is ripe for action, joint action, is thinking about smart growth, which is one of our strategies in the Action Agenda, particularly around affordable housing and how our goals for Puget Sound recovery, like encouraging infill development, for example, help the affordable housing community achieve its goals as well. And so looking for those places of mutual interest and overlap.
I think we always have more work to do to engage with the farming community. Viable agriculture is very important to us, and we have work to do to build those relationships. Then I think a brand new field of endeavor for us and for many of our partners is working on environmental justice issues and with new, well, communities that are new to us, and living and working in urban areas in particular, or the other disadvantaged communities, and bringing them—hearing their voices and what’s important to them—is a new frontier for us. And I’m excited about that.
“…[T]he imperatives of climate change are an additional stressor on Puget Sound, and that’s highlighted more in this Action Agenda.” — Dennis McLerran
Dennis McLerran: I would just add that the imperatives of climate change are an additional stressor on Puget Sound, and that’s highlighted more in this Action Agenda. And we know there are many, many groups and organizations that are focused on what we need to do to address climate change and the stresses that climate change present on salmon recovery, on temperature in our streams, and ocean acidification, and the impacts on shellfish. So working hand-in-hand with folks who are addressing the climate change imperative is an important part of the work going forward as well.
Jon Bridgman: What are some of the first things that we need to do, sort of the short term? Do you see some important actions that we need to take either at a local level or at a broad level? And also, what are some of the things that people can do to get engaged in that?
Dennis McLerran: One of the things that’s clearly on my mind in that regard is working with the legislature and the Governor to continue the work that they’ve started in the Governor’s salmon recovery package and the funding that is on the horizon from the auction revenues in the Climate Commitment Act. There’s a natural climate solutions account that needs to be fleshed out to identify the items that will be funded through that—that are in the Action Agenda but have a particular impact on climate and a connection to the auction revenues that will be generated under the cap and trade system, the Climate Commitment Act that the legislature has created.
So we’ve got a lot of work in front of us to help both the legislature and to work with our partners in the environmental justice community—to put forward in the agency budget items that the Environmental Justice Advisory Council under the HEAL Act will feel are addressing environmental justice impacts of the work that needs to be done. So lots in front of us right away to work with the legislature—to help them flesh out what they’ve been working on so hard in terms of Climate Commitment Act and other funding strategies that are in front of the legislature and that the Governor’s put forward.
Laura Blackmore: And I would add to that, I think, a couple of things. One is we’ve been hearing from our local partners in particular the need for capacity at the local level to access the funds that are coming from the federal government and from the Climate Solutions Act, or Climate Commitment Act, excuse me. So that is a spot that needs a lot of focus and thought.
And then I also think the Action Agenda calls on us to develop some smart policies around things like incentives for infill, for example, like I mentioned before, oil spill prevention efforts, safer alternatives to toxics, those kinds of things. Working on 6PPD-quinone, getting that out of our streams. So there’s a lot of policy work, I think, that needs to happen as well at the state level and the federal level. So plenty of things to choose from.
Jon Bridgman: Where do you guys see us in 10 years? I mean, what do you hope to see? And it could be longer, 10, 20 years. I know this recovery is a long-term effort.
“Puget Sound recovery is a long-term effort. It’s going to take all of us working for decades to get to the place we want to be. I think this infusion of federal and state funding is astounding and provides us with an incredible opportunity to jumpstart the effort, but it’s a long-term one.” — Laura Blackmore
Dennis McLerran: Well, certainly a priority for me is to see some of our endangered salmon stocks taken off the endangered species list. The Hood Canal chum are close to that. And so I think that we are seeing progress. We’re seeing places where the efforts have resulted in improvements. And I would very much like to see us have some more of those listed species show signs of recovery and be in a position where tribes and sports fishermen and kids are able to go out and catch a salmon.
Laura Blackmore: Couldn’t agree more with Dennis. I think maybe the only thing to add to that is that in 10 years we will have broadened and deepened the coalition of folks who are working really hard on this. Like Dennis said, [we’ll have] brought the business community in in a really meaningful way, brought environmental justice communities in in a meaningful way so that the diversity of thought, diversity of perspective, diversity of voices strengthens our collective effort and helps us continue to push on the state government, the federal government, and all of us—because we can’t slow down. Puget Sound recovery is a long-term effort. It’s going to take all of us working for decades to get to the place we want to be. I think this infusion of federal and state funding is astounding and provides us with an incredible opportunity to jumpstart the effort, but it’s a long-term one.
Jon Bridgman: Thanks so much for listening to our conversation about the 2022-2026 Action Agenda. You can find out more about the Action Agenda and how to get involved with Puget Sound recovery through the Partnership’s website at www.psp.wa.gov. Thanks for listening.