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July 07, 2005

I've Got a (Wildlife) Bridge To Sell You

Here's a bad idea. The state wants to widen Interstate-90 over Snoqualmie Pass. While they're at it, they're considering building a series of passageways for animals--maybe as many as 14--that would help wildlife move safely across the expanded freeway. It will cost $113 million.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's important to design our cities and roads to accommodate the natural systems around us. Indeed, I think we have a moral responsibility to do so. But I'm rather unconvinced that a) this project will do much to help the state's wildlife; and b) it's the best use for wildlife of $113 million.

I admit that the basic idea is simple and appealing. By building overpasses with native plantings and widening existing underpasses, we can help animals move safely from north to south across the interstate. It's worked in Florida and Banff National Park in Canada. In fact, it already works in places where I-90 is elevated as it traverses the Cascade Mountains. So far, green groups seem to love the idea. So why do I think the project is so stupid?

  1. I don't want the freeway widened. Already, people are living in Roslyn and Cle Elum (and even farther east) are commuting to jobs in the Puget Sound region. A new resort in the area, Suncadia, is leading the next wave of development there. Widening the freeway will make it easier for people to live in the hinterlands, on the sunny side of the mountains, and drive 70 miles to work. This has at least two serious consequences: 1) It will mean more carbon emissions and hence more global warming, which may have profound consequences for the region's wildlife, especially salmon; and 2) By encouraging development in the eastern Cascade foothills, it will actually substantially reduce wildlife habitat. (Don't underestimate the significance of this last point: Cle Elum is primed to become a bedroom community, the resultant low-density sprawl could put a serious dent in critical wildlife habitat. Freeway-widening like this can be the Trojan Horse that will turn Seattle into LA-north.)
  2. The money could be better spent elsewhere. The Ellsworth Creek Watershed in coastal southwest Washington preserved 5,000 acres of lowland old-growth forest and salmon streams, along with cut-over forest. It cost $20 million (about $4,000/acre) and was heralded as one of the region's biggest conservation achievements of the decade. There's terrific potential for restoration there, including reforestation, which will soak up carbon out of the atmosphere rather than add more to it. It also shelters the species that need it most, such as salmon and spotted owls. For the price of the I-90 passages, we could replicate the Ellsworth success nearly 6 times! (In fairness, the money for the passages comes from federal highway funding and likely wouldn't be available to alternative forms of conservation. That's a failure of the federal funding constraints that should be changed. Conservationists should lobby for more flexible mitigation money for freeway expansion, not solely for passages.)
  3. The passages will not help the most critically endangered species. Passage advocates trumpet the corridors' usefulness to black bear, elk, mule deer, and a few others. But it's hard to see what all the excitement is about. Washington has probably the largest black bear population of any state in the nation, except Alaska. Deer are, if anything, overpopulating Washington. Even elk fare well in the Evergreen State: there are ten herds, with thousands of animals dispersed widely around the state. Not that we shouldn't protect these species--we  should--but it seems more important that we focus on struggling keystone species like salmon. Or maybe on species that are vanishing from the state, such as the Selkirk caribou herd or sage-grouse.

The sad fact is, wildlife habitat in the central Cascades is severed by I-90 almost as effectively as the Columbia River segregates Oregon from Washington. It would be nice if our high-speed freeways didn't have an impact on wildlife. But they do. And there's no fix for the fundamental problem that doesn't cost so much money that it would be better spent--for wildlife--elsewhere.

In my more cynical moments, I fear that this project is an example of the worst kind of greenwashing. Road-builders won approval from environmentalists, their usual nemesis, by sugar-coating the freeway project with an expensive patina, the wildlife passages. But the pernicious consequences of freeway-widening--accelerated habitat loss, climate change, lost conservation opportunities--pose a far more serious threat to wildlife.

Washington is fortunate to have a remarkable share of its montane ecosystems intact. The state is home to millions of acres of wilderness and roadless areas in mountainous areas. On the other hand, we're desperately short of protected areas in sagebrush country, in Puget Sound lowlands, along coastlines, and in low-elevation forests. It's annoying that the big wilderness areas of the northern Cascades are divided from those in the Mount Rainier-region, but no species' survival depends on migrating between those areas. At the same time, many species in other ecosystems in Washington are speeding straight toward extinction. Our conservation priorities ought to lie with them. 

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink


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» Are "Wildlife Bridges" Over I-90 Really a Good Idea? from Evergreen Politics
Washington State is contemplating widening the I-90 corridor over the Cascades. (You knew that, right?) They're also contemplating building $113 million worth of wildlife bridges to help critters like bear, deer and elk cross the widened road more safe... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 9, 2005 2:50:29 PM


Eric, I think your posting is a bit misleading. YOu quote the total price of the project as $113 million, but that addresses many issues - it certainly does not spend the bulk of this on animal crossings. Yes, it includes some key over and under passes for wild animals. This by the way, works to save both wild animal & human life. Both are endangered by animal - car collisions. And it widens I-90 in response to the congestion and traffic. It also addresses the degrading pavement situation, avalanche dangers, et al. No environmentalist that I know woke up one day and said "hey - let's go spend a bunch of money on I-90." Instead they said, "if you are expanding a 4 lane highway to 6 that cuts through many acres of wild land that Washington citizens have lobbied for and raised a ton of money to keep wild -- then let's give the animals a chance." If we are going to continue to build & expand highways, it makes the most sense to do so in a way that better respects our environment and our safety. If you are against expanding highways, fine. But don't use the extra dollars to build them right as the reason not to build at all. If you win your arguement, you just end up with an unsafe (for animals and humans) 6 lane highway through some of our best wilderness.

Posted by: Alex Loeb | Jul 9, 2005 3:16:36 PM

Alex, the entire project is estimated to cost between $311 million and $728 million depending on how extensive the changes are and how many bells and whistles they add. The $113 million that I quoted in the post refers to just the animal passageways, I believe (admittedly, that's for the most aggressive scenario in which they build 14 passageways). If the state wants to repair degraded pavement and improve avalanche safety, they have my blessing. But I don't approve of widening the freeway and it galls me that other conservation-minded folks don't seem to realize the pernicious consequences widening will have. Anyway, the best way to promote human safety is simply lowering the speed limit. That would do far more for accident prevention than widening. Plus, it's free.

You write: "If you win your arguement, you just end up with... a 6 lane highway through some of our best wilderness." This is really my main point, I guess. That area is not wilderness quality now and it's already severed by a 4 lane highway. I'd argue that conservation spending--like all spending--involves opportunity cost. And the opportunity cost of I-90 animal passages just seems too high to me, when there are so many exciting and more necessary conservation possibilities elsewhere in the state.

Posted by: Eric de Place | Jul 10, 2005 7:35:08 PM

If lowering the speed limit promotes safety, closing the freeway altogether would promote it even more...

Posted by: Mars Saxman | Jul 11, 2005 10:50:34 AM

Your arguments boil down to holding the perfect against the good, which is the sort of futility that has hamstrung our movement for the last decade. When you have viable strategies for reducing speed limits on I-90 and for pirating transportation mitigation to whatever short list of favorite projects you have in mind, I'll be glad to listen.
The other fundamental flaw in your position is your allegation that "no species' survival depends on migrating between those areas." A additional objective to enabling migration (for those species that migtrate) is providing for genetic continuity between subpopulations of imperiled and demanding species like grizzly bear, gray wolf, fisher, even spotted owl. The Washington Cascades is presently unable to handle a reintroduction of native fisher due to barriers like I-90 between habitat patches.
The healthy public lands in the Cascades represents one of our nation's greatest ecological investments. Allowing that investment to be ecologically bisected - divided and conquered - is the nightmare scenario that prompted the historic collaborative campaign of The Cascades Conservation Partnership. Against all odds we've protected that habitat to be maintained/restored on either side of the highway. Now we need to bridge the pavement itself.
One more quick response to your onvoking the macro consideration of the climate impact of highway widening. As the climate warms, ecosystems and species will require the need to shift northward (and upward) to survive. Linking landscape level refugia in a north-south direction is the best thing we can do to provide a future for our wildlife in the hot times ahead.

Posted by: Mitch Friedman | Jul 11, 2005 11:13:06 AM

Mitch, thanks for weighing in. In the spirit of collegial debate, I have a few responses...

I don't have a strategy for reducing speed limits or "pirating" transportation money for other forms of mitigation. And if the widening is a fait accompli, then I suppose I'm in favor of the passages. But what I don't understand is why greens--one of the few groups that might stop the widening and have an interest in doing so--aren't trying to 1) stop it; or 2) come up with more innovative strategies for mitigation. For instance, wouldn't it be better if freeway building came with wildlife mitigation money that could be used flexibly, where it could do the most good? (This is not a rhetorical question, by the way.)

I get the genetic continuity argument (though I don't think it's decisive), but I'm puzzled by your invocation of grizzlies and wolves. The handful of these animals that live in Washington, if indeed there are any, are nowhere near I-90. I quite agree that we should work hard to protect them and expand their range, which is precisely why I'm troubled by the scale of resources flowing to the passages. I also can't believe that the passages are the best redress to spotted owl habitat loss.

To me the real "nightmare scenario" in regional conservation is not bisecting the Cascades. (In any case, it's already bisected.) It's failing to restore coastal fish and bird habitat, watching the state's sage-grouse and caribou go extinct, blah, blah, blah, because we funneled our conservation resources into expensive but low-yield causes, while more promising and necessary projects went begging.

Posted by: Eric de Place | Jul 11, 2005 2:10:27 PM


First, I apologize for the length of my comment but there is much to respond to. While your concerns for the ticket cost of wildlife connectivity and further pavement are understandable, this project has the potential to build upon conservation measures directly north and south of I-90 that have already spent over $100 million in habitat protection, and ensure a more permeable freeway to better ensure future wildlife habitat protection's goals. The growth of population and development in Kittitas County is not new, and is something that many groups involved in this project have been attempting to address in coordination with the I-90 Project through land conservation and growth management. Let me address the points that you made in your article.

The expansion of a freeway from four to six lanes is not considered a wise conservation move on its own merit by any group, and most conservation groups that have joined the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition have signed their support for the project with a clear opposition to simply widening the freeway. We hold a position that wildlife connectivity and safety must be as integral a piece of the project as addressing traffic and freight concerns. A 6-lane interstate with high quality crossing structures and proper habitat protection mitigation measures, will provide a better situation for wildlife and local waterways than we currently have in the Central Cascades. It is also an opportunity to improve I-90 now during a current construction phase, rather than wait another several decades for the chance.

The protection of Ellsworth Creek by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) was an exciting and worthwhile project, but that organization is also underway raising millions of dollars to protect an area just south of Interstate 90 in the Central Cascades wildlife corridors along Highway 12 at the Tieton River. TNC endorsed the efforts of the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition to build upon their large investments in the Central Cascades.

The wildlife crossing structures proposed in the I-90 project address safety and endangered species protection components of transportation management. Therefore, they can be paid for with our transportation dollars allotted from both federal and state transportation budgets. This money CANNOT be used for habitat protection in areas away from the project area. While conservationists can lobby to change the laws regarding transportation spending, they will also continue to lobby for habitat protection funding through the current sources that are used to protect areas like Ellsworth Creek provided by congress and private citizens.

While the habitat protection that you argue for is extremely important for protecting both common and endangered wildlife species, the wildlife crossing structures proposed are also beneficial to their survival. The crossing structures are designed to meet a multi-species recovery strategy. 13 of the 14 wildlife crossing structures as underpasses, where the interstate will be elevated over local creeks to expand the open areas around the waterway and allow for a freer flow of the creek. This will not only provide huge benefits in re-establishing native wetlands and water quality, but also provide critical habitat improvements for bull trout, amphibians, birds, and native plants. There is one area where a doublespan wildlife overpass is being proposed at Easton Hill, which is addressing the largest concentration area of elk crossings. Both types of wildlife crossing structures are designed to be used by many types of wildlife including endangered species. Common animals such as elk and deer are discussed more often in public with this project because they are the obvious animals associated
with road kill along I-90, and in high populations in Washington. But, there are about 70 species and subspecies of terrestrial wildlife are found in this area that need the ability to cross the roadway. The scientific studies from the other crossing structures that you noted in Banff, Canada show that these structures are used by a wide variety of animals including the endangered grizzly bear and grey wolf, which have small current populations in our state that many groups are working to recover in the future.

It is true that the habitat directly north and south of the project area is not wilderness quality, but the purpose of the efforts in the past decade in the Central Cascades is to work towards that future. In the last four years, the groups now working on this project spent over $72 million to protect over 34,000 acres of habitat to link the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area to Mount Rainer National Park. These efforts continue through land conservancies and private citizens today. The work that is done for wildlife mitigation on I-90 will last for decades to come, and therefore must address the future habitat quality of the lands that we have
protected and the wildlife populations that will be restored in the Cascades. This 15-mile section of improvements is simply one piece in a larger conservation story that displays the power of combining restoration, policy work, land protection, and transportation planning to ensure viable wildlife populations in Washington State.

Finally one element left out of your article that bears mention in any project is the human population. Of course the roadway itself is designed for the human population of this state, and this project poses a chance to make it a safer drive for them as well. Each year over one million animals are killed on our roadways, and many of these accidents result in expensive injuries to the motorists involved with an approximated 200 deaths. On this section of Interstate this is true as well, with vehicle-animal collisions recorded with mountain lion, deer, and elk. As you may remember, four people died last summer just west of the project area when they collided with a herd of elk. As shown through the studies in Banff, wildlife crossing structures combined with proper fencing can reduce these collisions by over 80%. It is estimated the cost of the average accident at $2,000, but the cost of lives is immeasurable. In a press release on the success of Virginia's wildlife crossing structures, biologist Bridget Donaldson stated "Money spent on wildlife crossings may seem an unnecessary addition to construction costs. However, the savings associated with reduced human injury, mortality, and vehicular damage as a result of effective wildlife crossings can offset the cost of
crossing installations. While many successful crossing structures cost less than $200,000, studies have estimated the cost of a single human traffic fatality at more than $3 million in lost income, medical costs, and property damage."

I encourage you to visit the resources page of the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition's website (www.i90wildlifebridges.org) to look at success of these structures to date in addressing wildlife connectivity needs. Most importantly, this project is in the public comment period and you should make your thoughts known to the
Department of Transportation by email to [email protected].

It is important to think about the worth of the investments that we make for wildlife in our transportation projects as their effects are much larger than just the I-90 Project. The South Purcell herd of caribou that you refer to in your article faces many threats, one of which is their natural inclination to lick the salt off of the pavement of British Highway 3. When the highway was built in the 1960's there were many recorded roadkills involving caribou, and the number of accidents has steeply declined in recent years with their population numbers. It is an issue that area biologists have kept track of, and consider one of many threats to the species. In the recovery effort for caribou that includes habitat protect a possible compliment may be addressing the roadway in their homeland as well.

Posted by: Jen Watkins | Jul 11, 2005 6:36:54 PM

Answers to your questions in response to my response:
You ask if it wouldn't be better if mitigation funding associated with freeway construction were more flexible. Maybe, maybe not. In politics, flexibility often leads to abuse. As a present practicle matter, if those funds don't go to wildlife bridges, they'll go to more pavement.
I dispute your contention that grizzlies, if present in the ecosystem, ain't in the I-90 area. Credible sighting are in fact well distributed. But the point is irrelevent. We're planning for long-term recovery potential, and a large, free-ranging, low-fecundity species like the grizzly bear will need as much linked habitat as it can get.
It's somewhat ironic that you'd choose sage grouse and caribou as examples of better uses of our attention. NWEA is a leader in conservation efforts for both species. For full perspective on our strategies for caribou, see www.mountaincaribou.org (which doesn't include our effort at Wilderness designation and habitat restoration in northeastern WA). The point is that these are not mutually with the wildlife bridges.
Your broader point has validity: There's a limit to the conservation funding pie and we need to prioritize. But from the view atop that soapbox, I hope you can see that the I-90 wildlife bridges stack up better than many many other uses of federal funds.

Posted by: Mitch Friedman | Jul 12, 2005 9:57:53 AM

Jen & Mitch & Alex,

Thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully to my post and comments. This has certainly been an illuminating discussion for me (and I hope for other readers too). I don't want to belabor the same arguments, but I do want to hit on a few points.

First--and this is the kicker--if 1) the highway widening if a foregone conclusion and 2) the federal funds are indeed available for no other purpose, then it's a no-brainer... You can count me as a supporter, not only because of the wildlife needs, but also to starve transportation agencies of road-building dollars. Still, I've not heard of any serious attempt to make mitigation money more flexible, which I think would be smart. (Obviously, there's another debate lurking here, but I'll skip it for now.)

I was aware of NWEA's work--in fact, I'm a big fan--on both caribou and sage-grouse conservation. The work is clearly not mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, all investments--whether monetary or otherwise--involve an opportunity cost. And I think it's wise to take a hard look not only at the costs and benefits of a proposed project, but at other projects that get fewer or no resources as a result. I'm still not convinced that the passages are the best use of that money--unless, as I said, the money doesn't exist for other purposes.

Setting conservation priorities is terribly difficult because it involves both political-financial opportunity and ecological necessity. You guys are the experts, so I suppose I should defer to your judgment, but...

My understanding of the issues leads me to believe that we should either 1) expand core habitat; or 2) conserve vanishing ecotypes. The Tieton project is in a much less degraded area and stands to add to the core habitats of Rainier, adjacent wilderness areas, and state wildlife lands. Other projects, like Ellsworth for example, go after vanishing ecosystems that also are home to endangered species (and sequester carbon to boot). I agree that there are wildlife priorities in the central Cascades, but are they really better than the opportunities in other ecosystems? If I had $72 million to link habitats, I imagine I would have spent it elsewhere in Washington on under-protected ecosystems.

Consider the grizzly example. Isn't it easier and better to add to their territory near the big protected chunks in northern and northeast Washington? (Again, NWEA has done great work in this area and I applaud it.)

Finally, as for human safety, I'm still perplexed that green groups aren't promoting lower speed limits. I believe the research indicates that it's better for human safety, and presumably wildlife safety, than widening. It also has some big ancillary benefits: it's free, it reduces carbon emissions, and reduces sprawl.


Posted by: Eric de Place | Jul 12, 2005 1:35:55 PM