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Originally published Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Trail Mix | Ron Judd

Building a bridge over common waters

A short hike from Bert Webber's living-room windows, the cold, freshwater of the Nooksack River ends its journey from the shoulders of Mounts...

Seattle Times staff columnist

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A short hike from Bert Webber's living-room windows, the cold, freshwater of the Nooksack River ends its journey from the shoulders of Mounts Baker and Shuksan and dumps into Bellingham Bay, where it mixes with saltwater, reducing the bay's salinity and creating a marine habitat unique on the planet.

From his front lawn, you can stare across the bay at the hulking spine of Lummi Island and imagine the same natural handshake happening, freshwater with salt, in bodies of water all the way south to Olympia and — if you open your mind far enough to jump the border — all the way around Vancouver Island, north to the top of the Strait of Georgia.

Put this area all together in your head, and you have one of the world's largest, richest inland waterways — a broad, deep, protected sea, ringed by madrona and Douglas fir and Cascade volcanoes that create their own microclimate. The sea is home to orca whales, giant geoduck clams, surging waves of silvery salmon, packs of frisky otters and, down deep, solitary giants like the Pacific octopus and the occasional lumbering six-gilled shark.

It's a sea with lower salinity than the ocean at large, thanks largely to the pumping heart of British Columbia's Fraser River, which, most people would be shocked to know, supplies up to 80 percent of the freshwater content of Elliott Bay.

But here's the problem: Most of the 5 million of us living on its shores really can't put this all together in our heads, because on mental maps, the sea doesn't exist — at least in one chunk.

Go to any store and look for a map depicting the sprawling inland sea stretching from Olympia to Campbell River, B.C. Unless you look in the marine-chart section, you won't see it. Maps end at the international border at the north tip of Washington. Others pick up in the same spot and go north. So do those in our minds.

"We tend to give the (U.S./Canadian) border power" over a natural world that does not recognize it, Webber believes.

This is where Webber, 66, a retired marine scientist from Western Washington University's Huxley College of the Environment, comes in.

Back in the mid-'80s, Webber, who has spent a good portion of his life teaching people about ways they unknowingly interact with local waters, struck on something that to him seemed obvious.

"The Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound are a defined ecosystem," he proclaimed at the time to anyone willing to listen. "We're tied into the ecology of a larger system. That larger system has boundaries. It doesn't have a name."

It's a critical gap, and not just for political reasons, or purposes of cartography.

"I'm a believer in names," Webber says. "It's part of our education, knowing where our place is: This is where we live. What they do in the Fraser River affects us down here."

And vice versa.

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Webber, in a nod to the first peoples to live upon its shores, chose "Salish Sea." It caught on with some folks — orca huggers in the San Juans, a handful of artists and academics. But Webber, who submitted the name to governments in both Olympia and Victoria, admits it never really caught on.

Still, he has kept hope alive, all these years, because he believes a single name is key to a broader understanding of just how — and where — we all fit into the Pacific ecosystem.

In the two decades since his proposal, the need for a common perception of the big waterway out back seems more critical than ever. Local salmon stocks and orca pods have fallen under protection of the Endangered Species Act. Rockfish and other bottom-dwelling species have nearly vanished.

On the plus side: Sensitivities about what we dump into our local sea have heightened.

And, by pure chance, the notion of finally putting the Salish Sea on the map has emerged once more. At a recent gathering of First Nations tribes in B.C., someone dredged up the idea again — this time as a suggestion to simply rename the Strait of Georgia the Salish Sea. Some provincial powers-that-be in B.C. endorsed the idea, and have pledged more study.

Webber believes it's missing the point to apply the name only to the sea's northern reaches. Seeking not to replace, but to overlay existing names such as Puget Sound and Strait of Georgia, he's been invited by state officials to submit a new Salish Sea proposal, which he plans to do by this fall.

Maybe, if we could just see it, for once, as a continuous sea on a map, we'd start to view it differently. And maybe we'd want to go more out of our way to protect it.

Twenty years ago, Bert Webber might have been 20 years ahead of his time. Today, he might finally be right on top of the bow wave. It all depends on how many others decide to surf alongside him.

Anyone willing to get wet?

Ron Judd's column appears here every Thursday. To contact him: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Trail Mix | Ron Judd
Ron Judd's "Trail Mix" column, which appears Thursdays in Northwest Weekend, focuses on the Northwest great outdoors -- with just the right amount of real life thrown in for good measure.
rjudd@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8280

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