Campaign Updates

FAA Reauthorization Bill with Language Allowing Protection of North SeaTac Park Passes in the US House of Representatives

July 21, 2023

On July 20, the US House of Representatives passed House Bill 3935, reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) through 2028. This bill contains a provision, added by Representative Adam Smith, that would open a pathway to permanent protection of North SeaTac Park.

See the July 15 update, below, and Representative Smith’s statement on the bill here for more details. Please consider sending thanks to Representative Smith here.

Passage of this bill improves prospects for North SeaTac Park, which is currently zoned aviation commercial and is at risk of development for airport expansion. But it’s one milestone on a long road. To become law, this provision must be approved by the Senate in its companion version of the bill (SB 1939), be retained in the final version passed by both House and Senate, and then receive the signature of the President.

And that’s just the legislative side.

For anything to change even if the new law passes, the Port of Seattle will need to take affirmative action. For the law contains no mandate that the Port protect North SeaTac Park. It contains only a new authorization specifically allowing the Port to do so.

And even if the Port does take affirmative action to protect the park, it faces many choices. One major choice it has is to either keep this land in permanent park status by leasing it to the City of SeaTac - or to do so by selling it to the City.  

Once that matter is settled, other big choices remain - some that would protect the park’s forest and waterways - and others that would not.  Because the new law would mandate only protection of park use. It would not mandate protection of its natural resources.  

The eventual owner, Port or City, could decide to prioritize forested recreational uses of the park. Or it could decide to replace large areas of trees with sports and other park facilities. Even if it took no action to replace natural areas with other park uses, it could choose a pathway of neglect and allow these areas to be lost to invasive weeds and climate impacts.  

Of course, we hope that the eventual owner of North SeaTac Park and any partners it works with, would choose to vigorously pursue the grants needed to restore and protect its natural resources - and to invest the needed oversight to ensure that these grants are used in the context of the kind of comprehensive and professionally administered forest plan called for in the Community Forest Consensus.

It is public action - or inaction - that will likely determine what choices are made and to what degree our public agencies can keep the focus - over years - to effectively implement these choices.

One likely positive sign that the Port is paying attention to the need for a comprehensive approach to protecting natural resources is that the Commission recently adopted Order 2023-10 “to  adopt principles to guide development of Port of Seattle’s environmental land stewardship efforts around trees, forest, and other habitat.”  

But will the Port act in accordance with the important principles in Order 2023-10? After all, in signing the 2021 King County-Cities Climate Collaboration Joint Letter of Commitment, it pledged to protect and restore forests and reduce sprawl. And, considering that current published Port plans recommend the removal of over 100 acres of mostly-forested land in our near-airport community (including 31.5 acres inside the park), the Port has yet to demonstrate how it intends to live up to this promise.

At every stage of the process to protect the park, public input is vital. Without continuing public calls for park protection and informed and consistent public advocacy that holds public agencies accountable for creating and following through on SMART  measures to do so, we continue to be at risk of losing much of the green infrastructure that protects the health of near-airport residents and is a critical part of our local natural heritage and identity.

The new law makes protection of North SeaTac Park easier, more likely, and probably faster. But it does not protect the forest surrounding the park. It does not ensure forest or even park protection even if it does pass. It is not the only pathway available. And it will be effectively applied only with continuing public advocacy.

North SeaTac Park’s prospects for permanent protection get a boost

July 15, 2023

An amendment to a bill reauthorizing the continuation of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA bill)*, currently under consideration, would authorize the Port of Seattle to permanently protect the park, including by leasing or selling it at a price below market rate to the City of SeaTac. 

As of now, according to both the Port and the FAA, the option of selling or permanently reserving use of this land for a value below market rate is prohibited because federal airport improvement funds were used to purchase it.

Above, US Representative Adam Smith announcing at a 6/10/23 Aviation Town Hall in Des Moines that he included an amendment in support of protecting North SeaTac Park in  the current FAA Reauthorization bill. To his left, Port of Seattle Commissioner Hamdi Mohamed, Washington State Representative Tina Orwall, and Washington State Senator Karen Keiser.

A June 30 email from the Port of Seattle Commissioners Office provides some background on this important development and notes that Commissioners worked with Representative Smith, Senator Maria Cantwell, and other members of the Washington State Congressional Delegation to make it happen.

This is good news for the park. In addition to opening a path to protecting it, the proposed law also suggests that Port of Seattle Commissioners, perhaps a majority, are likely on board for permanent park status. 

But the park is not protected yet. The amendment might fail. If it passes, Port Commissioners will still need to take effective action - and there’s no guarantee that they will.

And, even in the best case scenario, the proposed amendment would not protect an additional 70-80 estimated acres of forested land connected with the park where the Port’s Sustainable Airport Master Plan (SAMP) and Real Estate Strategic Plan (RESP) recommend airport expansion.

The Defender’s Community Forest Consensus, signed by nearly 3,300 community members, calls for saving the forest on these dozens of acres, along with the park. This natural resource is exceptionally important for public health, climate heat mitigation, the health of our local streams and wetlands, wildlife habitat, a buffer for the forest in the park, and so much more.

So, although the amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Act represents perhaps the most direct way to protect North SeaTac Park and is a major accomplishment of the public officials who made it happen, it’s important to understand its limited scope.

It’s also important to know that this is not the only option that the Port has to protect this critical green infrastructure. Other pathways are available.

Consider, for example, that US Department of Transportation rules, based on Presidential Executive Order 12898, require that projects like the Port’s proposed airport expansion avoid disproportionately high levels of cumulative impacts on low income and minority populations. It is well established that pollution from SeaTac Airport operations disproportionately harms King County residents of color and of lower income and that trees provide protection against this harm.

Consider also that federal, FAA and Port goals for reducing climate-disrupting pollution and increasing our community’s resilience to ever-intensifying heat from climate change are significantly advanced by preserving all of this forested land. 

And consider that the Port can easily demonstrate to the FAA how the natural services provided by the forest in and around North SeaTac Park have higher economic value than the market rate selling price of the land. These services are directly relevant to the continued viability of airport operations which will increasingly be operationally impacted by climate impacts and held accountable for the harm its expanding operations inflict on nearby residents. This harm now falls disproportionately on people of color, people of lower income, and those who already experience higher levels of health vulnerabilities to climate and other pollution impacts. The recent class action suit against the Port for “showering” residents with pollutants may be just the start.

Acknowledgment and thanks are due to Representative Smith, Senator Cantwell, Port of Seattle Commissioners (with special thanks to Commissioners Felleman and Mohamed who led on this action), SeaTac’s Mayor and Councilmembers who have been vigorously advocating for this park’s protection, and every person who signed the Community Forest Consensus and wrote, called, or provided comments to the Port. We can’t stop now. Continuing, vigorous public support is needed to protect both the park and the surrounding forested land.

*House and Senate versions of the amendment to the FAA Reauthorization bill

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