Crews in Bellingham replace an old culvert (center) with a new 12-foot diameter pipe. The old culvert was too smalland sat too high for juvenile fish to navigate during their migration to their spawning grounds.

Crews in Bellingham replace an old culvert (center) with a new 12-foot diameter pipe. The old culvert was too smalland sat too high for juvenile fish to navigate during their migration to their spawning grounds.

Washington State Deptartment of Transportation / Flickr

Much needed Northwest wildlife projects could get a boost from the federal infrastructure package.

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The U.S. House is expected to vote on the bill Sept. 27, but uncertainty is building as to whether the House will approve the package, which includes at least $1.6 billion for state and local governments and tribes to start wildlife projects.

The U.S. Senate approved the infrastructure package in August in a 69-30 vote.

Northwest conservation groups said they hope the infrastructure package soon will make it to President Joe Biden’s desk. The package includes funding to replace aging culverts, build wildlife crossings, and improve crumbling Forest Service roads.

“We’ve been hearing concerns and some uncertainty; there’s a lot of moving pieces and political hardball happening in the other Washington, but the hope and expectation is the House will vote on and pass the bipartisan infrastructure package next week,” said Chase Gunnell, spokesperson for Conservation Northwest.

As it stands now, the infrastructure package includes funding for several programs that could help wildlife in the Northwest. In the Senate version of the bill, $350 million is dedicated for wildlife crossings over a five-year period. Another $1 billion over five years could be available for states, local governments and tribes to remove or repair culverts. Around $250 million over five years would also be set aside to fix old forest roads and trails.

These types of infrastructure projects are effective ways to improve wildlife habitat and human safety, said Nicole Cordan, project director with Pew Charitable Trusts.

“When we put in these wildlife crossings, we see a real reduction in the collisions that happen between wildlife and humans,” Cordan said. “When we take out a dam or culverts, we see the impact that has on the full ecosystem, bringing back salmon and other critters that eat those fish.”

Culverts are pipes that allow streams to flow beneath roadways. When culverts are improperly designed or have become too worn, they can block salmon from reaching significant portions of cold water habitat.

“For such a small little thing, they create a lot of big problems,” Cordan said, of problem culverts.

A 2018 Washington Supreme Court decision means the state must fix most of the culverts that block salmon passage by 2030. At the time, the state estimated it could cost more than $2 billion to fix the culverts.

More funding, Cordan said, could help speed up the process to remove and repair culverts. This also would be the first federal program to help salmon habitat by fixing problem culverts nationwide.

For example, one project that could benefit from additional funding is Oregon's Salmon Superhwy, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. The large infrastructure project aims to restore access to nearly 180 miles of salmon and steelhead habitat on Oregon's North Coast.

If passed, the infrastructure package also could help further efforts to get more wildlife across roads safely.

In areas where wildlife crossings or underpasses have been built, such as Highway 97 near Bend in Oregon, the paths have reduced collisions between wildlife and vehicles by up to 90%.

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This bill could ensure replication of some of the success already seen in the Northwest with wildlife crossings and underpasses, Gunnell said, such as overpasses recently built over Interstate-90 at Washington's Snoqualmie Pass.

New projects at Highway 20 in Washington’s Skagit Valley, where there have been collisions with elk; Highway 12 in southwest Washington, where more habitat needs to be connected between the Willapa Hills and the Olympic Mountains; or along the Interstate-5 corridor south of Olympia.

“Funding is the barrier, and this could be a big infusion of funds,” Gunnell said.

However, any additional federal funds likely would not assist Safe Passage 97 project in North Central Washington, where community members have tried for at least six years to build underpasses along a treacherous stretch of Highway 97, Gunnell said.

The project is too far along at this point, he said. Shortcutting that process for other projects would benefit people and wildlife across the Northwest, he said.

“Animals can’t survive on little islands of habitat. They need big, connected landscapes. Nobody driving a car wants to hit an elk or a deer. There’s a way to solve both these problems,” Gunnell said, “at a scale that really meets the challenge of the problem, which is not small and is all across the West.”

Another big problem this infrastructure package could dig into, Gunnell said, is old and rutted out Forest Service roads.

“The roads are horrible, but they’re still so popular. You’ve got dozens of people using them any given weekend. Then you get other roads that are horrible but are just obsolete, that are no longer needed and were a legacy from logging decades ago and that we need to just close down,” Gunnell said.

Hikers and campers would have an easier time reaching far off places. The repairs also would benefit fish, he said.

Salmon, steelhead and trout often spawn in the headwaters. As old forest roads erode, that sediment can clog tributaries where fish spawn, Gunnell said.

“The sediment from that old road can actually drown out salmon eggs and can really have a big impact on the spawning productivity of these wild fish,” Gunnell said.

However, all the funding to help salmon did not include a proposal by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, that would have removed four dams on the Lower Snake River in southeastern Washington.

Many conservation groups initially had hoped Simpson's $33.5 billion proposal would have made it into the infrastructure package. However, it didn't gain support among the Northwest congressional delegation.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee have said more discussions should take place across the Northwest about the fate of the controversial dams.

House Republicans on Thursday urged fellow GOP representatives to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, said the infrastructure package would do more harm than good because some progressive members would like to tie it to a much larger budget package.

"I don't view it as a bipartisan bill any longer," McCarthy said at a Thursday news conference.

Progressive members of the House have said they will vote against the infrastructure package unless the more controversial budget plan is passed first. The House also is expected to vote on the more expensive budget plan sometime next week.

The budget package includes funding for projects that could address climate change, Cantwell said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Of the infrastructure package, Cordan said, “I know there’s a lot of hope it passes next week. I’ll just say I’m not sure that will happen. But that’s OK because I think it will end up moving forward,” even if that happens later than next week.

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