Phil Johnson walks on..


This is one of the hardest obituaries I’ve ever written. I knew a small piece of Phil Johnson. I never knew him as he grew up in Port Townsend, on the farm just north of the county fairgrounds. Nor did I know him as he went off to college, and then became a salmon fisherman. Nor when he married the love of his life, Sandy.  Nor the daughter that they had, Maia. I didn’t know him when he became a property owner in downtown PT, nor when he helped a young guy named Rocky buy and restore the Rose Theater.  I didn’t know him as he built homes, and then ran for County Commissioner. But then I got to know Phil when he and I bumped into each other fighting for environmental protections in Jefferson County, first on the Shoreline Master Program, to write in rules to better regulate aquaculture and then to work to ban Atlantic salmon raised in net pens in the Salish Sea. Then on the Jefferson County Marine Resources Committee.

It was hard work. Industry spokespeople verbally trashed us and undermined our work.  Angry citizens that couldn’t understand why the government should do more regulation screamed at public meetings. They are still out there doing that at every opportunity.  It’s not spin. It’s lies or at best a misunderstanding of the issues. A lack of taking the time to understand the issue.  Heads of state agencies patiently listened to Phil’s cogent arguments, then they ignored him. Including heads of agencies still in office today.

Phil didn’t care. He had the creds. He had been here, salmon fishing, and watching the fish vanish. Watching the destruction by boats losing nets, his included. Watched as all sorts of things happened to destroy the fish runs. The growth of non native fish in huge farm lots called net pens. He knew how bad it was, first hand. It was clear that the runs were almost gone, that the Orcas were only indicators of a much wider problem that was much farther along than the pols and business spokespeople wanted to admit. The loss of habitat, the lack of monitoring and enforcement, especially in rural poorer counties like ours hampers our ability to act even when the will is there. There is still a  lack of real funding and enforcement to fix the problems.

He traveled everywhere to share his thoughts with others wanting to listen. And finally, by accident, we had the issue cornered, because of a monstrous breach that couldn’t be covered up by industry PR and bombastic paid spokespeople at public forums interrupting Phil and others. They brought it on themselves by buying the regulatory bodies in the state government that could have told them that they needed to do better. Phil saw the opportunity and wanted to make sure it got accomplished. But he was running out of time.

There was a meeting in Blyn last year, to debate the rules that were about to be legislated into being to stop the rearing of Atlantic salmon and net pens. Phil really wanted to go. I had a van with a bed in the back and we discussed the logistics. We had a plan, but by then, it was too late. Phil was having too many problems with his health to go. So he told me what to say on his behalf.

I was attacked by the industry mouthpiece in the meeting but I  said Phil’s words and held him in my thoughts. In the end it was just one meeting, but additional momentum carried the day in Olympia and Atlantic salmon in net pens were banned. A huge surge of political will, momentum from all sides including many Tribes, who brought great ideas to the table and environmentalists willing to bend and give a little to get it done pushed it through.  But Phil knew that vigilance was necessary and we talked about what to expect next from that industry. He knew it was a long game to be played.

Now he’s gone. He left a legacy of the kind of politics we don’t see much of anymore. Whether it’s the hard core left or right that doesn’t want to compromise but doesn’t understand how to work the system to get things done, to the middle of the road pols that want to please everyone but accomplish nothing that really matters, Phil stood out. He did the hard work. Those of us that managed to catch a bit of that spirit understood. Many of us, myself included, just don’t have the stamina, nor the creds or temperament  that Phil had, to do what Phil did. Maybe at some point we will. But we will carry on. We are all a loose coalition of various people and organizations, often fighting for the same donated dollar, and sometimes at odds with ourselves. But when focused things do change. Phil knew that.

I’m including a short 1.5 minute video here I shot at a day a few years ago, celebrating the work of the Northwest Straits Initiative at the completion of the derelict nets project. Phil left a derelict net down in the Sound once. He knew where it was, knew it was expensive and he didn’t want to lose it but he did, and he also knew it had been recovered. He was grateful. Both for the project and the organization that got it done. Take a few minutes and listen to the late, great Phil Johnson, then go out tomorrow, next week and next year and gather your courage and fight for what you value. There’s plenty to fight for. See you out there.

 

 

 

6 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for your good words for Phil. He was a rare man indeed.

  2. Proud of Both of You…

  3. Thank you so much for such a beautiful tribute to a wonderful person, community leader, and friend. Phil was all of those things and much more. We will all miss him very much.

  4. RIP Phil…I remember the first time I laid eyes on you…in the commercial fishing vessel section of the Boat Haven on your troller. You will be greatly missed. Many thanks to you for all your service to your community. (And thank you Al for this moving tribute.)

  5. Thank you Al for your beautiful obituary and your hard work on the same issues that were important to Phil (and many of the rest of us)..
    He will be sorely missed. And work must be carried on!

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