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    San Juans monument debate shows islands' fault lines

    The county council has backed the idea of the Obama administration designating parts of the islands for protection. But that's not the end of the story for those worried about more tourism or more regulation.
    The beach at Watmough Bay on Lopez Island

    The beach at Watmough Bay on Lopez Island Jeff Youngstrom's photo stream (shot by Becky)/Flickr

    A proposal for a national monument in the San Juan Islands has garnered the San Juan County Council's unanimous support, but many locals see the plan as the death knell for a way of life the islands have long enjoyed.

    The campaign for a national monument, which can be established by presidential proclamation, has replaced legislation sponsored by congressional Democrats that would have established a San Juan Islands National Conservation Area. That legislation is going nowhere, as Washington congressman Doc Hastings, an Eastern Washington Republican, has not given it a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs.

    In practice, the congressional approach, establishing a national conservation area (NCA) through legislation, would have led to essentially the same result as a presidential proclamation: the designation of almost 1,000 acres already owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the San Juans as lands to be conserved. The acreage would, in either case, remain under the administration of BLM, which already manages 17 of the 102 national monuments. The big change, according to the proposal's advocates, would lie in the areas' receipt of permanent protection, as opposed to the periodically revisable BLM management plans, which now govern them.

    The key parcels — almost half the land in question — lie at the south end of Lopez Island. The parcels include the cliffs of Chadwick Hill and, below them, secluded Watmough Bay, as well as two other rugged seaside landscapes. The roughly 70 other tracts are largely tiny islets, but also include a couple of larger islands and three lighthouses.

    National monuments typically preserve sites of unusual historical, geological or archaeological interest, mostly in far-flung crannies of the West.

    Second District Congressman Rick Larsen and Sen. Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, introduced the NCA legislation in companion bills in 2011. Hastings has received a 0 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters and has been described by the seattlepi.com's Joel Connelly as “a politician who never met a parcel of federal land that he didn’t want to mine, drill, clear-cut or pave over.” A spokeswoman for Hastings' Natural Resources Committee said in an e-mail that the House bill was simply waiting its turn before the panel. In a June letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, urging support for the national-monument proclamation, Larsen pointed instead to “partisan opposition to the movement of any public lands legislation” as the likely impediment.

    While he hasn't yet made it to the islands, Salazar twice has come as far as Anacortes to meet with representatives of Islanders for the San Juan Islands National Conservation Area (INCA), and the advocacy group counts him as their point of access to President Barack Obama. This past winter, on his second visit to the area, Salazar brought up the national-monument idea as an alternative to the stalled congressional initiative.

    INCA took up Salazar's suggestion, “with the caveat that we would have local input into the management plan,” in the words of Lopez Island's Asha Lela, a member of the group's steering committee.

    INCA wants the national monument proclamation — or the NCA designation — “because it will give permanent protection to these lands, worth millions and millions of dollars,” Lela says. “That's the main reason – to avoid them being sold. When you live on an island, there's nowhere to go when those lands disappear.”

    Advocates see reasons to worry about the politics of winning protection later if the administration doesn't act. Earlier this year Rick Santorum, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said that “we need to get it back into the hands of the states and even to the private sector. And. . . we can make money doing it, by selling it.” The 2012 Republican platform makes no reference to BLM lands as such, but states that “Congress should reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s enormous landholdings and control of water in the West could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership.” The Democratic platform does not mention the issue.

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    Posted Fri, Sep 21, 9:48 p.m. Inappropriate

    What's really insane about this is the fact that this area is two parks and what the BLM staff described as a thousand rocks. For permanent protection, all it would take is a set of deed restrictions--but no, we need to develop a whole new entity and bureaucracy and "community input" which actually means the local gangs of NGOs. This has been an excuse for a long and somewhat embarrassing series of press releases from the local Democrats promising salvation for the parks and rocks. And meetings with the Secretary in Anacortes--which only requires an investment of three or four hours in transit and $60 for the regular folks to attend--on two days' notice. A huge PR campaign over the course of almost two years. And nothing. Let's see an actual survey of opinion of islanders. Like that would happen.


    Posted Fri, Sep 21, 10:07 p.m. Inappropriate

    I believe I am as interested as anyone in the islands in protecting our natural landscape. I just don't believe this is the way. I have little trust that some future administration won't decide these lands aren't "that special" and we could really lose out. In my over 40 years in the islands I have seen enormous degradation of the environment*, we are loving these islands to death. Increased tourism is NOT going to save anything but tourist business. I think all of my sweet friends that want this are mistaken. I agree it does look like an enticing and easy way out. If after another 40 years it turns out everything is just wonderful with these lands I will rejoice in thankfulness. I love these lands with my whole heart.
    Bless us and the islands most of all, Gregg Blomberg

    *Hey ask me how if you don't already know

    Posted Sat, Sep 22, 9:19 a.m. Inappropriate

    The reality is that tourism cannot continue in the present manner in the islands. If the islands want tourism, they need to start investing in tourism. That means 1. wider roads, paved smooth (not chip-seal) with bike lanes kept clean of pebbles, rocks and debris, 2. county road departments who do not rip apart the roadside trees and bushes 10 feet back from the road creating an eyesore that no tourist comes to see, 3. More ferries, probably with a reservation system, 4. Stop lights at major intersections, 5. more development of attractions and "things to do" (just trampling allover Watmough won't occupy them all day), 6. more police.

    Does that sound like something you want? Some of it maybe... but all of it? Pretty soon we'll have lost our rural character and we'll be just like every other place with a coast. No one will wave. And say good-bye to the large parcels of farmland (not that many are left on Lopez, anyway), because they are going to be sold for more third-homes for millionaires, it's already hard enough for farmers to hold onto their farmland designation with the current county assessor. But never fear, we'll also have a blanket of cell phone coverage and our very own Burger King. And that pesky water-ski ban can finally be lifted. Yay!??


    Posted Tue, Sep 25, 4:06 p.m. Inappropriate

    If the NCA or National Monument designation is given to these lands soon, it will not be what causes any uptick in tourism. The articles in major news sources (NY Times, Nat Geo Traveler, etc.) talking about the islands as a travel destination will be.

    Yes, the beauty of our islands will need to be cared for carefully in order for any further tourism to not damage it, but this decision is more likely to help in that regard than hurt. With protection our community will be able to avoid losing our backyards when BLM funding is axed and lands have to be sold. This designation doesn't mean we will have big national park style tourism, it means that our lands will continue to get the protection they need and our community will benefit both economically and aesthetically.

    The preservation of Odlin South, Turtleback and the Watmough Bight should make clear that this is not some small group of people making decisions for the whole. Our community has consistently acted to preserve our islands.


    Posted Tue, Sep 25, 8:19 p.m. Inappropriate

    With all due respect to my island neighbors, there is a great deal more support for permanent protection of the BLM lands in the islands than opposition. I had the pleasure of attending the meeting at which the County Council voted unanimously to send a letter supporting National Monument designation--the room was packed with people who spoke in support, as was the library meeting room on Lopez (via video link)--in fact after a show of hands from the group on Lopez of who wanted to speak in favor (basically everyone attending--no one raised their hand on Lopez to speak against the letter that day) comment was cut off because too many people wanted to express their support.

    The flood of tourism has already reached these islands, and as much as I would love to see it abate, right now it is more important that we have the tools to protect these lands than that we attempt to hide them by neglecting them. Designating the lands as a National Monument gets them into the National Landscape Conservation System and allows them to be managed to permanently protect their natural values.

    Posted Thu, Sep 27, 8:56 p.m. Inappropriate

    I live on the south end of Lopez Island, surrounded by the currently federally owned land proposed for the new National Monument. Tourists already come in droves, by bike or car, all spring, summer and fall, to visit these unique and beautiful locations. They swarm our roads but we do not resent them. We are glad they are visiting the special natural places, often with their families, in a way that will help build a life-long feeling of protection for the few remaining natural areas around us.

    Places like Iceberg Point or Point Colville or Patos Island to the north are not just unique and beautiful, they harbor unique, sometimes endangered, species. These places are endangered. First by the potential that BLM, the federal owner, may sell or develop these lands for grazing, mining, or tourism. Secondly and currently by overuse and underfunding.

    And it is not just "outsiders" that are overusing these precious natural areas. Every day throughout the year we Lopezians and other San Juan Islanders use them, sometimes without the level of reverence and care they deserve. But in the very public process over the past few years, the people of the San Juan Islands have spoken loudly and clearly, first in support of a congressionally approved National Conservation Area, and when that road seemed blocked, in support of a presidential declaration of a National Monument. A historic look at the public process and support would show your headline's "Fault Lines" to be more fiction than fact.

    Posted Mon, Oct 1, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    Oh my, Fault Lines!! The author is trying to make more controversy than there is about this topic. A conspiracy of the rich! Did you see the County Council room overflowing with speakers young and old in support of the National Monument?

    What put me solidly behind the National Monument designation for the BLM lands was hearing aspiring Presidential candidates talk about unloading excess public lands. A change of administration or control of Congress--next year or in any future year--can jeopardize the future of our BLM lands. The possibility of having these beautiful and desirable lands in San Juan County sold to private owners after years of work to make them available to the public and protect that status is untenable. Within a week of this Crosscut article being published, there was an article in the New York Times on the subject of the sale of federal land, “The Geography of Nope” by Tim Egan.


    In it Egan says, “Romney, you may recall, made news in the West earlier this year when he told a Nevada newspaper that ‘I don’t know what the purpose is’ of all this federal land in the West. It would be nice to think he just doesn’t get it, because he’s never spent any time in the free outdoors. But Romney has since coupled the black hole of his knowledge with support for Republican efforts to end federal control over large sections of the West.”

    I remember when all of Watmough Bay beach and uplands and Chadwick Hill was private property. Over the years they have been acquired for the public, and we all enjoy the use of them now—and I hope into the future. You might have to share these lands with a few more people, but if it’s sold and fenced off, any constitutional up Chadwick Hill will be a thing of the past.


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