Salmon-Safe construction wrap

Salmon-Safe: Media Hype or the Real Deal?

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Where Paul Allen leads–will you follow?

Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate has become the world’s first accredited Salmon-Safe developer. But what does that mean exactly and is it just a slick PR campaign, or a program with substance?

Mercer and Terry, Yellow1

The construction site located at Mercer and Terry in Seattle, slated to contain new offices for Google, is surrounded by a chain-link fence wrapped in mesh graphics advertising a program called “Salmon-Safe.” The contemporary blue, green and yellow message-wrap displays images of buildings and salmon swimming and offers the optimistic message “How we build here improves how they live here” and “Protect this habitat”. Other Vulcan sites around Seattle are wearing the same jaunty wraps.


Salmon-Safe is a program founded a decade ago by the Portland-based Pacific Rivers Council. It was originally designed to transform land-management practices on the west coast to protect salmon in west coast watersheds but was expanded in 2014 to include real estate development.


Vice President of real estate for Vulcan, Ada M. Healey, made the following statement:  Stormwater pollution continues to pose the biggest ecological hurdle for Puget Sound’s marine habitat. We believe that incorporating Salmon-Safe principles into our projects, and encouraging our project partners to become accredited, will help inspire the widespread adoption of this important standard.”

In 2015 Vulcan joined the Clinton Foundation’s Global Initiative to protect watersheds. In addition to committing to become Salmon-Safe accredited, Vulcan will create a best practices template to be shared with other developers. 

At first glance this seems like a great campaign, but specifically how does it protect salmon?  The Urban Salmon-Safe program is different from other green infrastructure programs in that its mission statement specifically focuses on the protection of salmon. 


The Salmon-Safe program encompasses the following guidelines:

  • Site Ecology: building sites must be designed to help protect wetlands, streams, and wildlife
  • Integrated Habitats: building sites must be designed to support neighboring habitats
  • Stormwater Management: potential runoff must be dispersed and filtered on site through bio-filtration and low-impact developmentMercer and Terry, White tanks1 (1)
  • Habitat Protection: During construction native soils and vegetation must be protected from site pollutants
  • Water Conservation: Sources of water for construction and landscaping should have the least possible impact on natural water flows
  • Care for Land: Landscaping must be maintained with fertilizers and insecticides that don’t contain deadly chemicals
  • Learning Landscape: Completed projects should include demonstrations and interpretative signs to build awareness for Salmon-Safe practices.

In addition to the Urban certification, Salmon-Safe offers certification for Farms, Vineyards, Corporate and University Campuses, Large Scale Infrastructure, Parks and Natural Areas, and Golf Courses. Accreditation is available for contractors and developers. Requirements are slightly different for each category based on their specific conditions.

The certification program is rigorous. The application process includes an initial site visit, site inventory and assessment, review of conceptual plans, review of salmon-safe standards, and the issuance of Phase I recommendations for the team.  The initial cost to become certified is not insignificant. Dan Kent of Salmon-Safe advises “based on project complexity and other factors, the assessment fees range from around $9,500 to $40K+ for district-scale development.”


There are definite bonuses to businesses in receiving Salmon-Safe certification. Salmon-Safe states on their website:  “With our peer reviewed standards and rigorous on-site inspection, Salmon-Safe provides important benefits to landowners including validation of environmental performance, innovation credit under U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program, public credibility, integration of management practices, and enhanced operational efficiency and cost savings. Salmon-Safe certification also can communicate to state and federal regulators that a landowner is out front with respect to meeting regulatory mandates like the Endangered Species Act.”

One of the big concerns with large areas of non-permeable surfaces is stormwater runoff. How large an issue is urban run off for Salmon? The Seattle Times ran an article entitled “Toxic Road Runoff” which referenced a study done by NOAA claiming that road runoff could kill an adult Coho in a matter of hours. 

We do know that toxic runoff will kill salmon. We know that green infrastructure programs that treat stormwater remove toxins and improve water quality which will help protect salmon. We know that salmon are vital to the Pacific Northwest.

Bottom line: Salmon-Safe is the real deal and it’s gaining support. Following a respected leader has long been a successful tactic, so will it work here? Paul Allen and Vulcan hopes so.


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By: Jennifer Croft              June 25, 2017