water. A salmon rolls its thick gray body to the surface and a
chocolate-brown mink scampers down the dike.
“What’s the cost of not having the ability to raise our own food?”
Kevin asks. “What’s the cost of not having healthy salmon runs?”
“What is the cost of not having healthy salmon runs?” I ask.
His answer is quick.
“Salmon are an indicator species of the health of an entire
system. If you don’t have the salmon you don’t have the eagles
upstream. If you don’t have salmon you don’t have orca. If you
don’t have salmon you don’t have the nutrients from their dead
carcasses, which feed all the other wildlife in the system. It might
sound simple, but it’s far-reaching.”
Far-reaching, yes. But I can’t help but wonder, is it quantifi-
able? Once you shift the language from higher values to market
value, you have to come up with a number. And if the number’s
too high, you walk.
In the Skagit County Historical Museum in La Conner,
wedged between antique farm implements and silver cups
awarded for the best sheaf of wheat at the county fair, a display
case holds labels from cans of salmon. There’s an astonishing
variety of elaborate logos, mostly in shades of pink and red. Not
long ago, the nozzleheads were making a killing on fish. The
brands are all gone today—Lynx, White Rose, Laurel Wreath,
Red Star, Gibraltar, Faust.
Today, not even the Swinomish Indian tribe—787 enrolled
members—can subsist on salmon. They have diversified into
crabs, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and geoducks— giant clams
prized in Asia. As a dollarable resource, salmon are already gone.
What Washington is facing is not how to conserve a valuable
resource, but how much money to spend on getting one back.
If you need more than a return of the fish— if, as in any other
economic endeavor, you require a return on investment—the
price might simply be too high.
KEVIN’S BACKGROUND is in economic development. He has
a degree in business administration. His first job in the region was for the Economic Development Association of Skagit
County, who hired him to mediate a battle between environmental groups and the Port of Skagit County, which wanted to build
a rail spur through one of the last remaining forested wetlands
in the delta. The Audubon Society and Friends of the Earth had
filed suit, but Kevin hammered out a deal before it went to court.
There too, he avoided talking about values or preservation, instead putting a monetary value on the wetland.
“We’ve always looked at things in terms of very limited values
from nature that we knew,” Kevin says, driving me by the pre-
served wetland. “What’s the real value of a forested wetland sys-
tem? Here what we learned was that there’s a huge value not just
for nature, but all of this holds the water o= the farmlands a little.
If they mowed over all of this, the farms would be underwater in
this drainage district. It was a functional value that no one really
I ask him if everything in nature has a functional value that
can be expressed in dollar terms. He says yes. But what about
some obscure beetle that barely di=ers from other beetles, I
press him, or a skink that plays no discernible role in its ecosys-
tem? What if something like that was blocking the potential for
huge amounts of economic good?
FREE-MARKET ENVIRONMENTALISTS love the idea of putting an actual value on the benefits of a healthy landbase. They
brian Cladoosby, tribal chairman of the Swinomish.