Washington boasts increasingly long lifespans and improved forest stewardship, but lags significantly in energy efficiency and smart growth. That’s according to the first edition of the Cascadia Scorecard, a new gauge of regional progress released today by Seattle-based research center Sightline Institute (formerly Northwest Environment Watch). Overall, the state—and the Northwest as a whole—has made gains since 1990, according to the Scorecard, but its record is marred by failures. For example, Washington residents still consume nearly as much energy as Texans; and Spokane and Seattle are decades away from becoming as compact as British Columbia’s largest cities.
“Celebrity scandal and stock prices make headlines,” says Sightline research director, Clark Williams-Derry. “But to be more successful as a region, we need to pay attention to critical, slow-changing trends that more dramatically affect our future.” The report—Cascadia Scorecard: Seven Key Trends Shaping the Northwest—details how Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia are doing and spotlights places that “score” best in each trend.
Selected during a three-year research process from a list of nearly 1,000 candidate indicators, the seven trends include health, economy, population, energy, sprawl, forests, and pollution. Highlights of the findings are:
- Low “score” on energy efficiency: Measuring use of highway fuels and nonindustrial electricity as a proxy for overall energy use, the Scorecard gives northwesterners low marks in energy efficiency. The typical Washington resident uses more energy than a Californian and nearly as much as a Texan. Although the region has moderated per capita energy consumption by 4 percent since 1999, the decline hasn’t been enough to budge it off the high plateau where it has been stuck since the 1970s. Washingtonians use more than 50 percent more gasoline per person than BC residents, and about one-third more energy overall.
- Spokane sprawls; Seattle makes gains: In a study of the seven largest Northwest cities, the Scorecard shows that though cities have become slightly more compact over the last decade, sprawl still dominates the region. Spokane, with 10 percent of residents in compact neighborhoods in 2000, is second only to Boise in sprawl; Eugene fared better; and Victoria was most compact (34 percent). Greater Seattle is improving: By 2001 the share of permits issued for new housing units outside the urban growth boundaries fell from one in four to one in eight in greater Seattle; King County had an even better record. And in recent years, Seattle located twice as many new housing permits in compact neighborhoods as the Oregon counties of greater Portland. But Vancouver, BC, is the region’s clear leader, with more than 60 percent of residents in compact neighborhoods in 2001. (See maps p. 41–48.)
- New gauge of forest stewardship maps 30 years of clearcutting: Using satellite maps from the NASA Landsat system, the Scorecard tracks 30 years of clearcuts in five “study areas”—including the Olympic Peninsula and the Central Cascades—as a rough gauge of how well northwesterners are safeguarding their natural heritage. From 1971 to 2002, the Olympic Peninsula clearcut a greater share of its forests than the other study areas (29 percent); but also has the greatest share protected. Cutting in the US areas slowed in the early 1990s—largely because of the Northwest Forest Plan—but has accelerated since 2000 to roughly one acre every five minutes. (See maps p. 49–56.)
- Northwest eighth in the world on lifespan: If the Northwest were a nation, it would rank eighth in the world on lifespan, the best single indicator of human health. A person born in 2001 can expect to live for 78.9 years, up from 47 years a century ago. British Columbians have the region’s longest lifespan at 80.7 years; Washington residents are second, at 78.6 years. If lifespan gains continue apace, BC will reach Japan’s best-in-the-world mark of 81.3 years in 2006; the Northwest states will follow in 2023. Good community design and greater access to health care may contribute to BC’s longevity.
- Historic lows in population trends: In good news, the region’s birthrates and teen birthrates have dropped to historic lows in the last decade, as the Northwest’s women increasingly choose to have small families, later in life. But the region still has a high percentage of unintended births; over one-third of all births in Washington are unplanned.
- Economic security slipping for average northwesterners: In a troubling trend, the Northwest’s poverty, child poverty, and unemployment have increased since 1990, even while economic output has increased—by more than 63 percent in the Northwest states. From 1990 to 2002, Washington’s poverty rate crept up from 8.9 to 11 percent, while the national poverty rate dipped to its lowest level in decades.
- “Body burdens” of harmful toxics: The Cascadia Scorecard tracks concentrations of pollutants in northwesterners’ bodies by analyzing breast milk in Northwest mothers for levels of three worrisome substances: dioxins; PCBs (polychloryl biphenyls); and PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), chemicals widely used as flame retardants. A report on PBDE levels in Puget Sound residents was released on February 24; NEW will release full results for this indicator later this year.
The Scorecard also uses an innovative method to mark how far the region is from reaching a real-world goal for each indicator. The region is furthest from the goals set for energy and sprawl. For example, if northwesterners continue reducing energy use as they have been, it will still take 86 years to achieve Germany’s 2001 energy efficiency. And overall, the region’s largest cities are 60 years from a goal of reaching Vancouver, BC’s level of compact growth.
To move the Northwest closer to such goals, the report recommends systemic solutions that would influence millions of daily decisions across the region. These include tax shifting to favor energy efficiency and smart growth; comprehensive testing of toxic body burdens; and better monitoring of the region’s progress through projects like the Scorecard.
“In a world of information overload, the Cascadia Scorecard provides a much-needed synthesis of and focus on the big picture,” says Gordon Orians, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington and chair of a National Academy of Sciences committee on ecological indicators.
Sightline Institute (formerly Northwest Environment Watch) is a Seattle-based nonprofit research and communication center that covers the Pacific Northwest, also known as Cascadia, a region including British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and adjoining parts of Alaska, Montana, and California. The Cascadia Scorecard is available at http://scorecard.sightline.org.