OLYMPIA—With the 29th observance of Earth Day on Thursday, Washington residents have 5.7 million reasons to focus attention on environmental issues in their own state.
Those reasons? They're all people.
Washington's human population has grown about 39 percent, or 2.2 million people, since Earth Day was first celebrated nearly three decades ago, making the state one of the most densely populated in the West.
With this population growth has come tremendous pressures on the state's natural resources, including fish and wildlife and their habitat. Today, at least 30,000 acres, and perhaps as much as 80,000 acres, of fish and wildlife habitat is destroyed or negatively altered annually.
These are just some of the facts that can be found in a new Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fact sheet titled "Earth Day 1999: Sharing The Earth With Fish and Wildlife." The fact sheet was produced to shed perspective on the unique environmental challenges Washington state faces as the century draws to a close.
"Since the first Earth Day, Washington state has undergone tremendous population growth," WDFW Director Jeff Koenings said. "This growth, in turn, has fundamentally altered many of our state's terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and contributed to the critical decline or elimination of many of our native fish and wildlife species."
Some key facts contained in the fact sheet:
- There are 49 fish and wildlife species in Washington state listed as endangered or threatened by the federal government or the state. Five species were added to the list last year alone. The primary reason for decline of most species was habitat loss or degradation.
- An estimated 700 state rivers and streams fail to meet federal Clean Water Act standards. In rivers with good, natural freshwater habitats, juvenile wild chinook survive to reach the ocean, whereas in degraded rivers, vastly fewer numbers of the young fish reach the ocean.
- An estimated 90 percent of the wetlands in urban areas have been lost to development. Of all of the state's wetlands, only 35 percent presently are considered to have good water quality.
- Fifty years ago, there were an estimated 9 million acres of old-growth forest in Washington state. Today, there are 2.6 million acres. Four threatened and endangered fish and wildlife species rely on old growth forest to survive.
Koenings said that since the 1970s, native grasslands and shrub steppe habitat in Washington state has been reduced to the point where only a few intact areas remain. With the loss of these habitats, the sage and sharp-tailed grouse, golden eagles, burrowing owls, pygmy rabbits, ferruginous hawks, Washington ground squirrels and even formerly ubiquitous black-tailed and white-tailed jackrabbits have declined to critically low populations.
"If our jackrabbits are in trouble we know that same terrestrial ecosystems are in trouble as well," Koenings said. "We must focus research, protection and restoration efforts in these and other habitats that are part of the natural heritage of our state."
Koenings said habitat degradation also is responsible for the decline of many of our salmon stocks. A vast majority of salmon mortality occurs in freshwater habitats that have been degraded over the years by unwise water and land use practices.
"The simple fact is we must make our rivers and creeks and streams better environments for fish if we are truly serious about wild salmon recovery," Koenings said.
Koenings stressed that education and participation at the local level by people of all ages are the keys to solving the state's environmental challenges. Conservation efforts, he said, must occur from the bottom up, not the top down.
"The really hard work in protecting and recovering our wildlife and fish will not occur in Washington, D.C. or Olympia," he said. "It will occur in the many cities and counties across the state and be carried out by partnerships between government and citizen groups.
The fact sheet may be viewed on the WDFW homepage at www.wdfw.wa.gov. Copies may be obtained by telephoning Public Affairs at (360)902-2408.