Northwest conservation groups call for federal infrastructure bill to help wildlife

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Bellingham crews are replacing an old culvert (center) with a new 12 foot diameter pipe. The old culvert was too small and too high for juveniles to navigate during their migration to their spawning grounds.

Washington State Department of Transportation / Flickr

Much-needed wildlife projects in the Northwest could be boosted by the federal infrastructure program.

The U.S. House is expected to vote on the bill on September 27, but uncertainty grows as to whether the House will approve the package, which includes at least $ 1.6 billion for state and local governments and local governments. tribes to initiate wildlife projects.

The US Senate approved the infrastructure package in August by 69-30.

Northwest conservation groups have said they hope the infrastructure package will reach President Joe Biden’s office soon. The package includes funding to replace aging culverts, build wildlife crossings and improve ruined forest service roads.

“We heard concerns and some uncertainty; there is a lot of moving stuff and political hardball in the other Washington, but the hope and expectation is that the House will vote and pass the bipartisan infrastructure package next week, ”said Chase Gunnell, door -speaking from Conservation Northwest.

Currently, the infrastructure package includes funding for several programs that could help wildlife in the Northwest. In the Senate version of the bill, $ 350 million is spent on wildlife crossings over a five-year period. Another billion dollars over five years could be available for states, local governments and tribes to remove or repair culverts. About $ 250 million over five years would also be set aside to repair old roads and forest trails.

These types of infrastructure projects are effective ways to improve wildlife habitat and human security, said Nicole Cordan, project manager at Pew Charitable Trusts.

“When we install these wildlife crossings, we see a real reduction in collisions that occur between wildlife and humans,” Cordan said. “When we remove a dam or culverts, we see the impact that has on the whole ecosystem, bringing back the salmon and other creatures that eat these fish.”

Culverts are pipes that allow streams to flow under roads. When culverts are poorly designed or have become too worn, they can prevent salmon from reaching significant portions of cold water habitat.

“For such a small thing, they create a lot of big problems,” Cordan said, of problematic culverts.

A 2018 Washington Supreme Court ruling means the state must repair most culverts that block the passage of salmon by 2030. At the time, the state estimated it could cost more than $ 2 billion. dollars for repair culverts.

More funding, Cordan said, could help speed up the culvert removal and repair process. It would also be the first federal program to help salmon habitat by repairing problematic culverts nationwide.

For example, one project that could benefit from additional funding is that of Oregon Salmon Super Highway, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. The large infrastructure project aims to restore access to nearly 180 miles of salmon and rainbow trout habitat on the north Oregon coast.

If passed, the infrastructure package could also help continue efforts to get more wildlife across roads safely.

In areas where wildlife crossings or underpasses have been constructed, such as Highway 97 near Bend, Oregon, the paths have reduced collisions between wildlife and vehicles by up to 90%.

This bill could replicate some of the successes already seen in the Northwest with wildlife crossings and underpasses, Gunnell said, such as overpasses. recently built on Interstate-90 at Snoqualmie Pass in Washington.

New projects on Highway 20 in the Skagit Valley of Washington, where there have been collisions with elk; Highway 12 in southwest Washington, where more habitats need to be connected between the Willapa Hills and the Olympic Mountains; or along the Interstate-5 corridor south of Olympia.

“Funding is the barrier, and it could be a big injection of funds,” Gunnell said.

However, any additional federal funding would likely not help Safe Passage 97 Project in north-central Washington, where community members have tried for at least six years to build underpasses along a dangerous stretch of Highway 97, Gunnell said.

The project is too advanced at this point, he said. Shortening that process for other projects would benefit the people and wildlife of the Northwest, he said.

“Animals cannot survive on small habitat islands. They need large, connected landscapes. No one driving a car wants to hit a moose or a deer. There is a way to solve these two problems, “Gunnell said,” on a scale that really meets the challenge of the problem, which is not small and is present all over the West. “

Another big problem that this infrastructure package could dig into, Gunnell said, is old and rutted forest service roads.

“The roads are horrible, but they are as popular as ever. Dozens of people use them every weekend. Then you get other roads that are horrible but just outdated, no longer needed and were a legacy of logging decades ago that we just have to close, ”Gunnell said.

Hikers and campers would find it easier to reach remote places. The repairs would also benefit the fish, he said.

Salmon, rainbow trout, and trout often spawn in headwaters. As old logging roads erode, this sediment can clog tributaries where fish spawn, Gunnell said.

“The sediment from this old road can actually drown salmon eggs and can really have a big impact on the spawning productivity of these wild fish,” Gunnell said.

However, not all of the funding to help the salmon included a proposal from Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, that would have removed four dams on the Lower Snake River in southeast Washington.

Many conservation groups had initially hoped Simpson’s $ 33.5 billion proposal would have been part of the infrastructure package. However, he did not gain the support of the Northwestern Congressional delegation.

Senator Patty Murray, D-Washington and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said more talks should take place in the Northwest over the fate of the controversial dams.

House Republicans on Thursday urged other GOP representatives to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Said the infrastructure package would do more harm than good because some progressive members would like to tie it to a much bigger budget.

“I no longer see it as a bipartisan bill,” McCarthy said at a press conference on Thursday.

Progressive House MPs have said they will vote against the infrastructure package unless the most controversial budget plan is passed first. The House is also expected to vote on the more expensive budget plan next week.

The budget package includes funding for projects that could tackle climate change, Cantwell said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Regarding the infrastructure package, Cordan said: “I know there is a lot of hope that it passes next week. I’ll just say I’m not sure that will happen. But that’s okay because I think it will eventually move forward, ”even if it happens later than next week.


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