‘Extinction is not an option’: Head of Salmon Recovery Office optimistic about recovery efforts

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- "We need to invest in keeping that environment, and it doesn't come free," says Erik Neatherlin in his blank-walled office.

When we talked to him in April, he could count his time running the Governor's Salmon Recovery Office in hours.

Now, he's got a new gig: implementing federally approved recovery plans for endangered and threatened steelhead, salmon and bull trout through coordinating the efforts of 25 community-based watershed groups in the state, along with seven regional organizations.

The agency's newest director still repeats and believes in the mantra from two decades ago, "extinction is not an option."

The Governor's Salmon Recovery Office is unique. No other state has such a grassroots set up to help bring back an endangered species. And the numbers for endangered salmon are not yet where scientists hoped they'd be when former Gov. Gary Locke established the agency in 1999.

"The work we've done is hard," says Neatherlin, "but I would say the work ahead is even harder. It's gonna take a while. It took us 100 years to get here."

But time isn't really on the side of those species still on the brink of extinction -- and those many other species that rely on them for their own survival -- like our southern resident orcas.

And since he and his staff of four have no real executive authority to wield, Neatherlin knows the work ahead will be a battle of hearts and minds.

"It does require us to get out there and have that dialogue to make hard decisions," says Neatherlin. "But we have to know what all the stakeholders needs are. We might have to get to a hard decision, but we can't make that decision from here in Olympia."

He thinks tough decisions lie ahead for all of us, from how we continue growth in our region while polluting less, how to develop shorelines that work for people and fish, and how we find balance between environmental and economic needs.

"Every one of us has to be committed," he says.

Neatherlin says the fact that only three of six needed habitat fixes in Mason County's Skokomish Valley got funding in the last legislative session this spring shows how hard it is to get money for the environment when going up against other worthy causes like law enforcement, school, or mental health.

"That's where the rubber hits the road," he says.

This Florida native says he fell in love with the environment and outdoors at an early age. And when he moved to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-90s -- he found a new passion working as a fish biologist.

"Seeing the spawning salmon in the rivers, in the small creeks with tens of thousands of fish," says Neatherlin, "so that was when I was really hooked."

He's no stranger to Olympia or to the creatures he's trying to save. He has eight years at the Fish and Wildlife Department under his belt, finishing up there earlier this year as a science director and policy lead for salmon recovery.

"No matter who you talk to, nobody wants salmon to go extinct," he says.

Neatherlin says since our state takes a grassroots approach to salmon recovery -- regular folks can get involved by just seeing what kind of habitat restoration volunteer opportunities are available, often within walking distance of your own house. He says it's these grassroots efforts on the individual level that inspire him the most. And also, he says, will make all the efforts to save our salmon pay succeed in the end.

If you'd like more information on the State of Our Salmon, click here to view the full 2018 report. 

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