The federal infrastructure bill is now law

President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act last week on a blustery afternoon in the other Washington. We’ve been digging into what this big, bipartisan infrastructure package means for this Washington since the bill was making its way through the Senate over the summer, and our staff and partners are busily planning for putting the incoming funding to good use on the ground – and in the water – for healthier, more resilient communities.

Now that it’s been signed into law, how might the infrastructure funding show up in your neighborhood?

President Biden addressed a bipartisan crowd of lawmakers and journalists before signing the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act on November 15.

A healthier Puget Sound, cleaner waters and help for salmon

The Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuary Program protects and restores 28 estuaries around the country, including the Puget Sound and Columbia River Basin. The infrastructure bill includes $89 million for the Puget Sound Geographic Program and $79 million for the Columbia River Basin Geographic Program.

Rep. Derek Kilmer, whose district includes Washington’s Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas, said that federal investments in recovering and restoring Puget Sound are critical to the environmental and economic future of our region.

Having the federal government step up and help in this effort is absolutely vital if we’re going to recover our salmon populations, ensure future generations can dig for clams, and respect tribal treaty rights. As Chair of the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus, I’m proud this bill will help advance a number of initiatives I’ve fought for to restore the Sound – which is important to our environment, to local jobs, and to our local economy.

— Rep. Derek Kilmer (WA-06)

Senator Cantwell and Rep. Kilmer led the effort to create the National Culvert Removal, Replacement and Restoration Grant Program, included and funded at $1 billion in the infrastructure bill to help transportation agencies fix fish passage barriers that impact salmon. This is an especially big deal for Washington state, where addressing the culvert issue and improving salmon habitat are urgent needs. A bipartisan group of Pacific Northwest members supported the creation of this new program to help recover salmon in our region.

Coho salmon swim in the Sol Duc River. Photo by Adam Baus.

The bill also includes $172 million for NOAA’s Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund for states and Tribes to protect, conserve, and restore salmon.  

More climate-resilient communities and ecosystems

Healthier estuaries and other ecosystems are more resilient to climate-change-related extreme weather events like floods, king tides, drought and wildfire. In addition to the benefits to people that come with cleaner water and the better functioning ecosystems covered above, the bill includes $491 million for Habitat Restoration and Community Resilience Grants and $492 million for the National Ocean and Coastal Security Fund Grants, according to Sen. Cantwell’s office.

Cape Flattery is part of the traditional homelands of the Makah Tribe. Tribes along Washington’s coast are on the front lines of climate change, with some actively relocating parts of their communities to escape sea level rise and storm surges. Photo by Elise Eliot.

AN Even bigger Deal for climate is on the way

The Build Back Better Act passed the House of Representatives just a few days after President Biden signed the Infrastructure package into law. Learn more about Build Back Better and its $555 billion in climate investments as the bill heads to the Senate for consideration.

Also included is nearly $7.5 billion in investments for agencies including the USDA Forest Service and Department of Interior to help Washington and other fire-prone states prepare for and become more resilient to wildfires, including several new funding programs to accelerate forest restoration, improve watershed conditions, implement prescribed fire, and increase reforestation. Thanks to Rep. Kim Schrier’s leadership, the bill funds the Legacy Roads and Trails Program at $250 million, a big boost for maintaining and decommissioning roads to improve watershed health.

Cleaner air and more transportation options

The infrastructure law includes $1.79 billion in funding for public transit in Washington, expanding your options for cleaner, more energy efficient ways to get where you need to go.

Thoughtful transportation investments in transit and other alternatives to single-occupant vehicle driving, and innovative stormwater solutions like the bioswale under the Aurora Bridge, can be a game-changer for human health and salmon recovery. Photo by Courtney Baxter.

cleaning up Washington’s transportation sector

There’s still a lot of work to do on transportation in Washington state as we look for cleaner, healthier ways to get around and protecting our air, water and habitat in a growing region. With funding from the 2021 Climate Commitment Act designated for carbon emissions reduction and no time to waste to recover our iconic salmon, we’ll be advocating for smart transportation policy in this Washington during the upcoming 2022 legislative session.

You may remember, from the multi-year effort to join our West Coast neighbors and enact a Clean Fuel Standard, that transportation is the most significant source of climate-changing emissions in our state. We expect more than $70 million in infrastructure funding to go toward expanding the electric vehicle charging network in Washington, and billions more to go into grant programs like the Low-No Emission Grant program, which supports projects like electrifying municipal bus fleets (like King County Metro’s), and the Capital Investment Grant program, which funds other low- and no-emissions transit projects like the Link Light Rail. All of this adds up to more options for cleaner ways to get around and less polluted, more breathable air.

Speaker Pelosi addresses the crowd and television viewers before the signing ceremony for the infrastructure bill.

What’s next?

As big as the infrastructure bill is, the climate crisis is bigger: there’s still a lot more we need to do to ensure a livable future for generations to come – and a lot more we can do at the national level. That’s why we’re continuing to advocate for Build Back Better as it awaits consideration in the Senate, which includes even more substantial investments in addressing and adapting to climate change.

Learn more about Build Back Better

Banner photo by Morgan Heim.

Creative Forest Thinning Reduces Fire Risk and Fosters Healthy Forests

By Sunny Wang, University of Washington News Lab

By only removing selected small-diameter trees and leaving some larger trees with diverse spacing, foresters are reducing the density of the trees and returning the forest to a more natural state. © Hannah Letinich

The Nature Conservancy is working on a new and creative forest restoration project on Cle Elum Ridge, called the “How Go Unit,” within the Central Cascades Forest. This “selective thinning” project will reduce fire risk, create healthy forests and support recreational access and natural habitat.

The How Go Unit is a 340-acre experimental site near the towns of Roslyn, Cle Elum and Ronald and is part of the nearly 38,000 acres of Central Cascades Forest land managed by The Nature Conservancy. TNC is ensuring that its forestry practices conserve wildlife habitat, restore watersheds and increase community resilience—the Forest Stewardship Council has certified TNC’s forestry work at the How Go Unit (FSC certification is the highest industry standard for sustainable timber harvest). 

“This is really cutting-edge forestry work,” Darcy Batura, forest partnerships manager of The Nature Conservancy, said. “We’re ensuring that we’re meeting the highest standards for sustainability and we believe this project is a model for forest management that can be applied to small-scale forests in Washington and throughout the Western United States.”

Batura is a resident of Roslyn, and she said that these small mountain communities have suffered recently as a result of wildfire. TNC is working to avoid future wildfire disasters by helping to build community capacity to restore the forest and build resilience to climate change impacts like wildfire.

Fire is a natural ecological process. However, fire suppression and exclusion over the last century have made forests dense and susceptible to wildfire. Pests, disease, drought and climate change are exacerbating the problems. Prescribed burning helps to clean up forest floors and nourish the soil. With more open space, trees gain more access to sunlight, nutrients and can grow larger and more resilient to fire.

In a dense forest, fire is fueled by packed trees and vegetation. The plants and small-diameter trees act as “ladders” for fire to climb up to the crown and potentially turn it into a severe wildfire. In 2017, the Jolly Mountain Fire near Roslyn burned more than 37,000 acres of forest land and put thousands of residents in the region on urgent evacuation notice. 

“We have not had natural, low-intensity fire on this landscape for over a hundred years,” Kyle Smith, forest manager of The Nature Conservancy of Washington, said. “The thinning and prescribed fire helps to mimic the natural processes…so when we have a fire, it doesn’t kill all the trees due to the lower severity. They are smaller ground fires and more natural.”

A prescribed fire practitioner during a burn on Cle Elum Ridge. Low-intensity prescribed fire removes brush and small diameter trees that could fuel a future wildfire. © Nikolaj Lasbo / TNC

Selective tree thinning is a start for restoring forests to historical conditions. By only removing selected small-diameter trees and leaving some larger trees with diverse spacing (clumps, openings and individual large trees) foresters are reducing the density of the trees and returning the forest to a more natural state. A “masticator” machine is also used to “chew up” small brush and further reduce the fuels that could possibly stoke a large wildfire.

In the coming years, TNC and partners will use prescribed fire to make the forest healthier while reducing the fuels that would cause a large wildfire and improve the safety of the nearby communities.

At the “How Go Unit,” foresters create an inventory about the forest, including acres, species, tree height, etc. Based on the information, a prescription is made and sent to contractors for selective cutting.

Herman Flamenco, conservation forester for The Nature Conservancy, spends days on site to observe and evaluate conditions of the forest for making prescriptions. While reducing forest density, the prescription ensures to maintain special features on the land. For example, a snag, which is a large dead tree, will be left uncut and serve as a potential shelter for animals.

When making these decisions, foresters and managers put both forestry knowledge and creativity into consideration. Flamenco believes there is much to learn from these innovative practices.

“It is a lot like art and science combined,” Smith said.

With the ongoing project, TNC prioritizes hiring local loggers, contractors and workers. The goal is to support the local natural resource economy. As the land is restored to its natural state, communities and smaller businesses can benefit from an increase in tourism and recreational use. However, in the short term, this work relies on patience and collaboration from the snowmobilers, skiers, hikers and mountain bikers who enjoy this land. Residents have been supportive and have followed signs to avoid the treatment site. TNC works to balance active forest restoration with recreational opportunities for residents and visitors.

A local contract forester on-site at the How Go Unit.

“We’re committed to keeping this private land open to recreational use,” Katie Pofahl, community relations manager for The Nature Conservancy said. “And it’s really important that these users pay attention to the occasional closures caused by logging and prescribed burns for their safety and the success of this critical forest restoration work.”

For example, this winter, the How Go thinning work will close Alliance Road, a seasonal snowmobile and hiking trail. Logging trucks on snow and ice make this an unsafe area for winter recreation.

“By protecting and restoring our forest, ” Batura said, “We are maintaining the region’s natural heritage and bringing value to the nearby communities through access to recreation, clean water, safety from wildfire and jobs.”

Learn More About Our Work in the Central Cascades

Salmon spawning in Barnaby Slough

By Amber Parmenter, Puget Sound Stewardship Coordinator

The mighty Skagit River supports all of Washington’s native salmon and trout species, including about 60 percent of the state’s wild Chinook salmon. It’s upriver sloughs and backwater areas provide important freshwater spawning and rearing habitat for anadromous fish like salmon and steelhead. Two of TNC’s preserves along the Skagit are involved in a multi-phase restoration project being implemented by Skagit River System Cooperative (natural resource management for the Sauk-Suiattle and Swinomish Tribes) along with land owned by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Seattle City Light.

This summer, SRSC completed phase one of the project! This phase included the removal of old steelhead hatchery infrastructure and removal of rearing pond dikes, opening flow to a portion of Barnaby Reach that has been blocked since the early 1960’s. I went out to see the construction in progress and was struck by just how much work was being done in the area. It looked like a completely different place as the construction crew erased the old infrastructure.

Dike removal at Barnaby Reach this summer © Amber Parmenter/ TNC

After the construction work, mats and wattles were set out to prevent sediment-laden runoff and we entered the sit and wait period. It will take some time for the site to re-vegetate and settle back into its old ways of being. 

In early November, we received an update from SRSC’s research scientist on the project. Coho had started to spawn in the east end of the slough! When salmon spawn, the female dislodges gravel with her tail to dig a small hollow for egg-laying. This creates a visible “clean” spot in the gravel bed called a redd. Observers documented adult salmon on two separate surveys and photographed a nice clear redd. SRSC researchers are eager to get out and assess the condition of the slough after the intense flooding earlier this month. 

Coho redd in Barnaby Slough © Catherine Austin/ SRSC

It was nice of the salmon to show us almost immediately that this habitat was needed and that they were going to use it. But, seriously this is really encouraging. Stay tuned for more updates on this incredibly important salmon work in the upper Skagit.