By Dan Pedersen
Special to the News-Times
David Dicks needed only three words to sum up two days:
“I’m blown away.”
The state’s czar for Puget Sound recovery wrapped up a two-day visit to Island County on Saturday, having just addressed an audience of 535 community members at Sound Waters University.
The annual one-day educational blowout at Coupeville Middle and High School is sponsored by Washington State University Beach Watchers. Classes ran the gamut from growing your own shellfish to Penn Cove seaweed blooms, coastal bluff geology, seafood safety, sustainable housing, orcas, wetlands, groundwater and wells, Whidbey Island’s birds, bats and raptors, wildlife photography and where to go fishing or kayaking.
Attendees chose any three of more than 50 such titles. Many classes focused on greater enjoyment of island living. All conveyed insight into how nature works on an island.
Dicks explained that raising awareness of the Sound’s problems and engaging the public in lifestyle changes to help protect it are two of the biggest challenges facing his new state agency, The Puget Sound Partnership. Dicks is Gov. Christine Gregoire’s appointee to lead a massive turnaround.
He pointed out many people find it hard to grasp there is a problem beneath the surface as they ride across the blue waters on a state ferry, with snowcapped Mount Rainier or Mount Baker gleaming in the distance.
But public engagement is strikingly different in Island County, Dicks said. He had just toured the orca exhibit on Coupeville Wharf, where WSU Beach Watchers and the Port of Coupeville are planning a marine education center. He had photographed the marine interpretive signs on the pedestrian causeway and was packing two copies of Getting to the Water’s Edge, a stewardship guide to the Whidbey and Camano shoreline, jointly published by Island County Marine Resources Committee and Beach Watchers.
Meeting with the MRC after his keynote address, he rolled up his sleeves and brainstormed ideas while also asking what his agency could do to help the local volunteers.
Joe Hillers of Coupeville asked, “Do you think this model we’ve got here with Beach Watchers, Shore Stewards, Sound Waters University and everything else is transportable to other areas of Puget Sound?”
Dicks responded, “I’ll just tell you right now that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about. Can we make this the model? This has so much resonance and engagement.”
Don Meehan, county lead on the MRC and local chair of WSU Extension, pointed out that government funding in the past often hasn’t included much for education. It has been for cleaning up messes.
“Here in Island County we don’t have many dirty messes,” he said. “So the question becomes, ‘Do you want to have a dirty-mess program or a program focused on teaching people to protect things so we don’t get a dirty mess?’ Our whole thing here is about being good stewards.”
Meehan pointed out the MRC and Beach Watchers developed Shore Stewards to encourage people to take good care of their yards, knowing they are the last little bit of land the water is going to flow over before it enters Puget Sound. Hundreds of property owners on Whidbey and Camano islands already have enrolled, and the program now has a toehold in other counties as well.
“We don’t ask Shore Stewards to go out and volunteer. We ask them to take care of their own place. But of course, with our Beach Watchers and MRC members, we ask them to actually go out and volunteer.”
“Ruckelshaus loves this,” Dicks said, referring to William Ruckelshaus, chair of the Partnership’s leadership council and former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “He believes this is the only way to solve a problem — with volunteers. I agree 100 percent. I think the question I have for you is what else we can do to help you so you can continue to do this and leverage it?”
MRC members stressed what they need most is reliable funding to expand the volunteer programs in here and throughout Puget Sound.
“We do things very inexpensively,” pointed out Phyllis Kind of Greenbank.
Dicks added, “I’d like to think about some way to really highlight this as a success story in Puget Sound and take it Sound-wide in terms of telling this story. I want to go back and explain this to a lot of other people.”
Dan Pedersen writes for the Island County Marine Resources Committee and WSU Beach Watchers.