Dave Somers on Earth Day
Over time, there have been environmental successes, but “what comes out of the tailpipes now is invisible” so it can be harder to engage people on the issues.
“We can do it. There are pathways forward that are extremely do-able. If we just put our minds to it. I am hopeful that people will keep working on it. We can see the effects of climate change. The implications of acidification of our oceans is terrifying,” he said.
Somers noted that catastrophes can galvanize people to action, much like we are experiencing with the coronavirus and the past catastrophic wildlife seasons. “Unfortunately, it takes catastrophes to get people focused on it. Let’s hope the 50th anniversary of Earth Day is a wake-up call and people will look back at our successes and tackle our problems of today. People of Snohomish County understand we live in a beautiful place. We do have to take local action and lead the way. But it is a worldwide problem.”
County Executive’s humble approach and coalition building pays off.
Dave Somers is a fly fisherman — who doesn’t fish anymore. Snohomish County’s top executive, charged with navigating the intersection of exponential population growth and environmental sustainability, quit fishing years ago.
I got to feeling guilty; There were too many fishermen and not enough fish. It took the joy out of it for me
He and his wife Elaine will be kayaking to enjoy the outdoors.
For a man who thought he would become a dentist when he first entered college, his entire life has been spent appreciating and protecting the environment. His Czechoslovakian immigrant grandmother gave him a membership to the Sierra Club, and his Boy Scout years were spent in miles-long hikes and river rafting trips. His young adult dreams of dentistry were easily dashed when, on a “lark”, he spent six weeks scuba diving in UC Davis-Bodega Marine Laboratory.
I got hooked on marine biology. I just loved it.
His first major job after graduate school was as a fisheries biologist for the Tulalip Tribes. Terry Williams was Somers’ boss. I called him my guru. He taught me so much, Williams said. I graduated law and justice, not habitat.
Somers was encouraged to run for a position on the County Council after the County enacted a comprehensive plan that did little to identify critical areas and buffers. “Elaine said ‘Why not give it a shot?’ ” he said. I came at it from a science background. I focused on understanding habitat and natural processes. I came to realize that (political and legal avenues) was where it’s at, Somers said.
Science should be the basis for good decision making.
Somers uniquely understood that decisions made by governmental agencies needed community consensus.
Nick Bratten, Forterra’s Senior Director of Policy who has worked with Somers on projects since 2008 when Forterra was the Cascade Land Conservancy, said he learned from Somers the value of bringing opposing interests to the table.
“In government, there can be a heavy hand, but looking for incentives to encourage the pattern of land use that is sustainable” has better results, said Bratten. He recalled Somers’ sage advice in 2012 when Somers was Snohomish County Council Chairman and Bratten was designing changes in the county’s regulatory incentives to encourage less development in the rural landscape and more in the urban areas. Changes to the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) was met with skepticism.
In our conversations, he emphasized the need to really have a broad coalition -Bratten said.
I took that advice and spent a lot of time talking to environmental groups, the tribes, realtors, builders. When it came time, we had a line-up of supporters coming to the lectern. Environmentalists, builders, tribes… they all united around a shared vision for conservation and prosperity through a market based approach. In all my time, I have never seen that happen. It really speaks to the recognition of the importance of having that kind of consensus building around land use.
Farmers and fishermen, who all have seemingly opposing interests in wetlands and have historically been at odds with each other, have also been brought to the table by Somers’ Sustainable Lands Strategy. By all reports, Somers, with his low-key demeanor, unwavering tenacity, and patient perseverance, has achieved the unachievable.
“Through dialogue and understanding, he has worked to find consensus to come up with land use solutions that work for both interests, and result in net gains,” said Bratten. Farmers and fish advocates went from “skepticism and distrust to collaboration and collective understanding.”
Williams added that the Sustainable Lands Strategy has helped to identify lands of importance to both farmers and fish habitat proponents. This work is becoming more critical as climate change comes barreling down the collective throats of our communities at a pace seven times faster than originally predicted, he said. Glacier melt is scouring the sides of the Skykomish River and farmers are losing acreage to the river and to salt water intrusion in fresh water aquifers. “We’re relocating farmers out of the delta,” Williams said.
Williams worked with Somers to create the strategy and establish collaborations between the Tulalip and Stillaguamish Tribes, state and federal agencies, and other stakeholders.
Sustainable Lands Strategy is something that Dave is proud of, Williams said, adding and I am, too.
We are problem solving and tackling hard issues and getting things done.
Tulalip Tribes Council Member Melvin “Mel” Sheldon, Jr. said Somers’ early career as a tribal fisheries biologist gave him a foundational understanding of and relationship with the tribes. Combining Somers concern for the environment and knowledge of treaty rights with the talents that he has as a listener… He brings it all together by bringing us together. He is a very unique individual.
“I appreciate him,” Williams said. “We know he’s listening. That has been a challenge not only for (tribal) leaders of today, but it was a challenge for leaders who went on before us. We are getting a lot better at listening to each other and hearing each other.”
The urgency of climate change, what Somers calls his greatest challenge as a leader, makes listening to each other all the more urgent.
Balance the climate change crisis with the fact that 1.8 million more people are expected to move to the Central Puget Sound Region — nearly 400,000 in Snohomish County alone — by the year 2050, and it becomes apparent that bringing people to the table is critical work.
Gene Duvernoy, founder of Forterra, said Somers “has managed to work with the Master Builders and groups like Pilchuck Audubon. The Master Builders opposed Somers in his first three elections and have since come to support him.
He’s a very disarming fellow,” Duvernoy said. He’s very forthright and very steady. He doesn’t get upset. He just listens and perseveres. He does it with good humor.
Duvernoy said Somers works diligently on difficult projects over long periods of time “so folks are willing to come back to the table again.”
If you want to know who Dave Somers is, look at his dog. “It’s all right there,” said Sheldon. Much has been written about Somers’ dog, Hewitt, whom the Snohomish County Executive rescued off Everett’s Hewitt Ave. But it’s Somers’ character you see in Hewitt, Sheldon said.
He has a universal love for humans, just like [he does] for his dog. You know that you are welcome there. There’s a lot of love there,