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Thurston County commissioners were discussing a proclamation last week that would declare October Walk to School Month, when Commissioner Gary Edwards brought up a topic that might seem unrelated: the Mazama pocket gopher.

It seems the infamous gopher, local subspecies of which are protected by the Endangered Species Act, has a way of weaseling into county conversations. In this case, Edwards brought up that the critters have delayed a long-planned road project that would add sidewalks and crosswalks near Nisqually Middle School.

Edwards floated that maybe language could be added to the proclamation clarifying that kids walk to school “when it’s safe to do so.”

“I contend that U.S. Fish and Wildlife doesn’t care about our kids, and the reason I say that: Nisqually Middle School,” Edwards said. “We’ve been trying … to upgrade our sidewalks, put in crosswalks, put in turn lanes. And we’ve been stopped from doing that because of the Mazama pocket gopher and their (FWS) inability to grant any leeway so that we can put together safer walking conditions for our kids in school.”

County Manager Ramiro Chavez cautioned the commissioners to “be cautious about having a formal document where we’ve outlined that we have unsafe conditions,” and Commissioner John Hutchings pointed out that prioritizing safety is a common thread throughout the proclamation already.

“It just doesn’t seem right to me that we prioritized the gophers’ life over our kids’ life, that’s all,” Edwards concluded. “That’s what this is all about.”

The project Edwards referred to is planned for Steilacoom Road Southeast between Pacific Avenue and Marvin Road, an area within County Commissioner District 2, which Edwards represents.

Nisqually Middle School sits at the northwest corner of the intersection of Marvin and Steilacoom, and the Regional Athletic Complex sits at the intersection’s southeast corner.

Currently, that section of Steilacoom Road is one lane each direction, without turn lanes, and features an asphalt trail — which officials say the county did not install — on the roadside nearest the school. No such trail or sidewalk exists along the opposite roadside, which is adjacent to a residential area. There aren’t any crosswalks from one side of the road to the other, nor are there bicycle lanes.

“There are neighborhoods there, within a stone’s throw, and the students cannot walk to the middle school because there are no sidewalks along Steilacoom Road Southeast,” John Suessman, director of transportation for North Thurston Public Schools, told The Olympian.

He said the lack of turn lanes also increases the likelihood that cars will be rear-ended or T-boned.

The project to change that is part of the county’s draft Transportation Improvement Plan for 2020-2025. It would widen the road, add left turn lanes, add bicycle lanes and sidewalks to both sides of the road, and improve drainage, lighting, and pedestrian safety, according to planning documents.

Suessman said turn lanes would improve traffic flow and safety in the area. As it is now, he said kids who live blocks from the middle school will wait outside for buses since it’s not safe to walk. And he said it impacts kids who go to Lydia Hawk Elementary, too, which is about a mile away.

“I have to be honest with you, it’s a beautiful project,” Suessman said of the planned improvements.

The project was originally scheduled for construction in 2017, according to Meghan Porter, a spokesperson for the county, but — as Commissioner Edwards pointed out — that didn’t end up happening.

“Due to the presence of pocket gophers and demands from other projects competing for limited county resources, the project was delayed,” Porter wrote in an email.

After funding was secured for the Transportation Improvement Board in 2013, pocket gophers were found within the project limits, according to Porter. A protocol to mitigate for impacts to the gopher habitat wasn’t fully developed. And, since the timeline for developing mitigation requirements was uncertain, construction grant funds were returned so they could be used for other regional projects, Porter wrote.

Senior planner Christina Chaput confirmed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded this July to a draft 30-year mitigation plan for gopher habitat the county submitted in 2018. County staff is now working with the federal agency to address questions raised, and there’s no clear deadline for a final draft, according to Chaput.

“The project is planned to go forward once this is resolved and funding for construction is obtained,” Porter wrote to The Olympian.

County staff, she wrote, are moving forward in 2020 with the design and right-of-way acquisition so funding can eventually be secured. The draft Transportation Improvement Plan for 2020-2025 shows that the total project is estimated to cost $3 million and $570,000 has been spent on the project so far.

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