DETERMINED TO GET TO THE FUTURE BY FOLLOWING THE PATH OF THE PAST -- Todd Mitchell, scientist with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community's environmental protection department. shared the importance of recognizing and using native traditional methods of observation in developing projects today. at a morning session during the 20th annual Storming the Sound conference - Photo by Ken Stern
The wave of the future rode traditions as old as the tides at the 20th Storming the Sound Conference in La Conner on Thursday. About 200 people, including environmental educators and representatives of ecology-related agencies and organizations from the North Puget Sound region, gathered at Maple Hall for the all-day event. They spilled into the Civic Garden Club, and La Conner United Methodist Church for class sessions. Presentations covered a wide range of marine environmental topics, with University of Washington professor Phoebe Barnard keynoting the seminar and Swinomish Tribal Community Director of Environmental Protection Todd Mitchell leading an hour-long session. Those attending put in practice much of what was preached. “We do everything to not produce waste at this event,” said Susan Wood, estuary educator at the nearby Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. “Our garbage cans are turned upside down, scratch paper is recycled and we have no thick printed agenda packets.” Nor were paper or plastic cups used for beverages. Mugs were available for tea and coffee. Less than one bag of garbage is taken from the conference to the landfill. Attendees instead take away new strategies for sustaining the environment into the future. Barnard set the tone. Now with the Conservation Biology Institute, Barnard spent more than three decades in southern Africa engaged in biodiversity and climate change, She now resides in Mount Vernon and remains a globally recognized leader in conservation biology.
She spoke passionately to fellow educators charged with passing on environmental awareness to the next generation. “As teachers,” Barnard said, “we know our role of raising the leaders of tomorrow.” Today’s youth stand to inherit many environmental and economic challenges, but ones that can be successfully met with a commitment to new ideas and perspectives, she believes. She suggested launching a “Marshall Plan for the Environment,” referencing the major American initiative that helped rebuild Western European economies after World War II. Her work in Africa convinced Barnard that ecosystem restoration and economic growth can be linked. “Some rethinking is necessary,” she said. “We need to de-carbonize our global economy.” The answer lies in restoring rather than exploiting the environment. Educators can do their part, she said, by teaching climate change preparedness and providing opportunities for urban students to connect with nature. “We can’t continue with business as usual,” she said. “Because it isn’t. There are things we can do in the next 10 years to avert disaster. Time is running out, but we can change it.” Mitchell, an Ivy League-trained geologist, spoke of indigenous science and environmental practices of Native Americans past and present. He noted historic methods of scientific observation and sharing of information made within a traditionally oral culture. “Our ancestors were scientists in different ways” said Mitchell, son of retired La Conner School Principal Ray Mitchell and grandson of late Swinomish Tribal Senate chairman Dewey Mitchell. “We are stewards of their data, to honor them, our elders and ancestors.” Mitchell earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and completed his graduate work at Washington State University. He returned home 19 years ago to lead what was then a four-member Swinomish Environmental Protection department. Today the staff includes six persons with master’s degrees. Mitchell shared with attendees the evolution of Swinomish environmental restoration at Lone Tree Creek, Fornsby Creek and the Smokehouse Floodplain and the popular Kukutali Preserve. The Kukutali project in particular has drawn widespread attention given that it created a public park co-managed by Swinomish and the State of Washington. Once called Kiket Island, work at Kukutali continued into last summer when a gravel road was removed to expose the beach underneath. Driftwood had collected on the roadway’s south side, and fish were impacted, said Mitchell. Thus, Mitchell said, the Kukutali project has both provided public access and helped preserve the ecosystem at the site, located about six miles northwest of La Conner. Mitchell stressed that indigenous knowledge and science remain viable in a modern period of climate change and rising sea levels. “Methods change,” he explained, “but the spirit remains.” In closing remarks, Glen Alexander, an early Storming the Sound organizer, echoed those sentiments. It’s a spirit, he said, that must be shared with students on the one hand and elected officials on the other. “Now,” he insisted, “is the time to contact lawmakers.” His charge was to press for legislative action on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border in support of measures protecting the Salish Sea, composed of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound, and the watersheds emptying into them. Taking up his guitar, Alexander invited the Maple Hall audience to join his chorus. “All these critters say to me,” went the sing-a-long, “keep singing songs about the Salish Sea.” In La Conner, on Thursday, Alexander’s tune definitely struck a chord.