‘Survival of the fittest’ for salmon supporters

Environmental nonprofits navigate a complicated, dwindling funding landscape to secure grants, other resources

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

LOSING A RESOURCE?

Of the nearly $2.5 million in grant dollars distributed through the Community Salmon Fund in what may have been its final round of awards in 2010, almost $250,000 went to Clark County projects or organizations:

Clark Public Utilities: $74,373.78 for Japanese knotweed eradication on Salmon Creek.

Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group: $53,580 for Lawton Creek community restoration project.

Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group: $39,000 for Pleasant Valley Park spring restoration near Salmon Creek.

Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group: $36,000 for nutrient enhancement of local waterways.

Salmon Creek Watershed Council: $29,914.65 for water typing near Salmon Creek.

Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group: $16,360 for Woodard Creek restoration project.

Source: National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

LOCAL PLAYERS

Several advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations carry the load of habitat work in Southwest Washington. A partial list of the most active:

Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group

Paid staff: four full-time

Annual budget: $900,000 to $1.4 million, depending on grants and workload

Clark Public Utilities’ watershed enhancement program

Paid staff: four full-time

Annual budget: $700,000

Northwest Wild Fish Rescue

Paid staff: none

Annual budget: $3,000

Salmon Creek Watershed Council

Paid staff: none

Annual budget: $15,000 to $20,000

Vancouver Watersheds Alliance

Paid staff: two full-time, one part-time

Annual budget: $175,000

Look around the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group’s office, and Tammy Weisman can tell you where just about everything came from.

Her mother-in-law donated one worn desk. Someone bought that chair at a garage sale. And the executive director’s desk? That’s actually a converted door, laying across broken file cabinets — all in an upstairs room of an old fish hatchery house the organization rents for $250 per month.

It’s plush enough for a group that expects to finish well over $1 million in fish habitat work this year.

Weisman, the LCFEG’s operations director, shrugs and laughs.

“This works,” she said.

Penny pinching isn’t new to the world of nonprofits, where organizations often live a tenuous existence fueled by donations and grants. The Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group is no different. But in the realm of habitat and fish restoration, local nonprofit groups say they’re vying for a shrinking pot of money that only makes their future more uncertain. And with the specter of big budget cuts looming at both the state and federal level, that trend isn’t likely to reverse itself.

While the large projects and established organizations will still find dollars to function, community endeavors on small urban streams like Salmon Creek may have a harder time making the cut. Local environmental organizations, meanwhile, are doing their best to find new revenue sources or combine efforts to continue the work they’ve done for years.

“A lot of these lesser tributaries don’t get the attention we’d like to see them get,” said Jeff Breckel, executive director of the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board. “It’s tough to find funds to fill that niche.”

That climate was punctuated by the apparent demise — at least for now — of the Community Salmon Fund, a grant program that doled out nearly $2.5 million in awards in Washington last year. About $145,000 of that went to the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group for four separate projects in Southwest Washington.

The last round of those funds was announced in 2010, before the federally funded program was dropped from the Congressional budget, said Cara Rose, assistant director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s western district in Portland. Not all of the money has been spent yet. When it is, recipients will have to look elsewhere to replace it.

Rose wouldn’t go so far as to say the program — which directly funded at least three projects on Salmon Creek last year — is totally defunct. Her agency is looking for other funding sources with hopes of reviving it, she said.

“You have to be optimistic in this business,” Rose said.

Finding a niche

As far as in-water work goes, December isn’t an active time for fish restoration groups. But many will be busy this winter writing grant applications that often take weeks or months to process.

In Clark County, several organizations carry the load of local habitat work. Some eye the same funding sources. But they’re not exactly in competition, and there’s even some overlap — one group’s leader might be another’s board member, for example.

Some of the most visible groups are Weisman’s Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group, the Vancouver Watersheds Alliance, Northwest Wild Fish Rescue, and the Stream Team, the public face of the Clark Public Utilities’ larger watershed enhancement program.

The Salmon Creek Watershed Council added to that list when it formed in 2006, then earned nonprofit status in 2007. But the process of getting the group on its feet wasn’t always smooth sailing, said treasurer David Page.

One of the new organization’s first endeavors brought a production of the cultural show “Salmonpeople” to Clark County with other local partners. But that was more of a community outreach effort, Page said, and didn’t necessarily give the organization a definitive, on-the-ground purpose.

The Salmon Creek Watershed Council has since participated in multiple volunteer cleanups, and may have found its niche with “water typing” around Salmon Creek in the past couple years. That project, which involves finding and mapping new water channels in a given area, earned the group a grant from the Community Salmon Fund last year.

Page said the ongoing project gives his organization something to build from, perhaps eventually hiring a staff member to better coordinate its efforts.

“It’s awfully hard to do a lot of stuff with an all-volunteer group,” Page said.

Southwest Washington organizations hoping to qualify for grant dollars must go through a gatekeeper of sorts in the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board. That’s the regional body that receives, ranks, then recommends grant proposals to the larger Salmon Recovery Funding Board.

Plenty of factors play into evaluating a grant application, Breckel said.

At least one key: Experience.

“If an organization has done some of these projects, has them under their belt, has a record of success, that does help their competitiveness,” Breckel said. Anymore, he added, larger projects are getting more complex.

“These sort of easy, low-hanging-fruit projects have already been done,” he said.

The funding board tends to get a core group of applicants that come every year and do much of the region’s habitat work — the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group falls into that category. Others come and go, Breckel said.

The board also helped dole out Community Salmon Fund dollars, which favored smaller projects that reached out to neighbors. Earlier this year, one such effort transformed a natural spring into a cold-water fish refuge just off Salmon Creek at Clark County’s Pleasant Valley Park. Local schoolchildren later took part in populating the habitat, releasing fish provided by Dave Brown’s Northwest Wild Fish Rescue.

That project brought together multiple players who combined efforts to make resources go further — a continuing trend in an era of shrinking dollars. Some groups have focused more on private donations to keep them going. Brown, who built an intricate system of fish-rearing pens on his own property outside Battle Ground, said his fish rescue program relies mostly on “my desire to make it go.” Grants aren’t a big part of his relatively small budget, he said, partly because the one-of-a-kind operation isn’t easily classified.

“I don’t fit the mold,” Brown said. “I do something so different that nobody knows what to do with me.”

Page said he’s holding out optimism that resources like the Community Salmon Fund will find better days. But ailing budgets won’t dull the desire to take care of the local environment, he said.

“In business and life, things go in cycles,” Page said. “We just keep our nose to the grindstone and hope for the best.”

‘Politics is what makes it hard’

For the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group, a recent habitat project on the Columbia River in Kalama fell well inside the group’s comfort zone. How it was paid for, however, may reflect a shifting model for the way environmental nonprofits find work.

Executive Director Tony Meyer designed and oversaw the construction of four large, square logjams on the Washington side of the river, braced by cables, bolts and 40-foot support logs shoved into the ground by a pile driver. The fortress-like structures, covered in dirt and fill, are intended to offer migrating fish a shelter from predators — both human and nonhuman — on the wide-open stretch of river.

Meyer’s group has done this sort of thing before. But in Kalama, the project wasn’t buoyed by any grant. It was funded privately by Kalama Export Company, which recently installed a new conveyor belt from a grain facility to a dock at the Port of Kalama.

Since the expansion affected the river, state rules required that the company also roll habitat mitigation work into it. Kalama Export hired Meyer’s organization to do it for $150,000.

“Which for us means every penny goes into the ground,” Meyer said.

The Kalama mitigation project isn’t the first the fish-enhancement group has done for another company or agency recently, Meyer said. It may do more as a way to help sustain itself if other funding sources become harder to find, he added.

That’s not the only way the organization has partially altered its strategy. The LCFEG’s annual Holiday Banquet this week — typically a celebration of the year’s accomplishments — focused a bit more on fundraising this year, Weisman said.

The organization may also be forced to rethink its volunteer and outreach programs largely funded by the Community Salmon Fund. Those include a volunteer program that puts salmon carcasses in local waterways to boost nutrients for other fish. Losing those grant dollars would put the organization’s public-engagement initiatives in doubt, she said.

“It changes the face of what we do a little bit,” Weisman said. “The Community Salmon Fund is a particularly big blow.”

That alone won’t derail the LCFEG or other groups. But shrinking resources might put it into a more traditional nonprofit mindset. Weisman called it “survival of the fittest.”

LCFEG receives about $120,000 per year in “base” state and federal funding. About half of that goes toward habitat restoration, Weisman said, with the rest spent on miscellaneous items like insurance, rent, an annual audit and other expenses related to its four staff members. Most grants don’t cover those costs, she said.

Meyer expressed some exasperation with the cumbersome grant process his and other organizations go through, sometimes writing multiple applications for essentially the same project in different locations in the same watershed. He suggested streamlining that process could make it much more efficient and stretch scant dollars further.

“Why put us through never-ending grant proposals?” Meyer said. “That’s not the best use of our resources, funding or time.”

Meyer stood next to one of the logjams under construction in Kalama in October, his hands stuffed in his pockets. The structure is a practical idea, he said, and one he’d like to see applied up and down the Columbia and other rivers.

He would, he said, if only it were that easy.

“It’s actually pretty simple,” Meyer said. “The politics is what makes it hard.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.