San Juans monument debate shows islands’ fault lines

The beach at Watmough Bay on Lopez Island Credit: 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.

Lela also sees administrative advantages in the designation. National monuments and NCAs get top priority, she says, when resources are allocated. One employee currently manages all the San Juans' BLM lands, and “we need another person out here at least,” she says. “There's an incredible amount of tourists that come out here, increasingly so.”

It's precisely the added tourists that give pause to Lopez Island's Gregg Blomberg, who sees national-monument status as “creating a tourism nightmare here. I want to place a lid [on that]. I don't want to live in Coney Island.”

“It's going to be a big draw for people that 'have to' do all the national monuments. I think the best way we can protect the land is not to publicize it. National-monument status will not protect those lands.”

Responding to Blomberg, Lela says the designation would not unleash a deluge of tourists looking to check one more national monument off their bucket lists. The uptick “wouldn't be that noticeable. There may be some increase [in tourism]. The tourists are going to come anyway. The San Juans are really well advertised.”

California's Fort Ord National Monument — administered by BLM both before and since its designation this April 20 as a national monument  —  lies on the coast a two or three hours' drive from San Francisco, and thus presents similarities to the San Juans, with their proximity to Seattle. In a phone interview, Fort Ord manager Eric Morgan estimated that visitor totals rose from 30,000 to 100,000 in the past dozen years, but could jump as much as fivefold  — to half a million  —  within the next three to five years, given the added impetus of increased visibility from the new national-monument status.

Of the 17 BLM-managed monuments, at least five charge fees for visitors. Several require permits, for example for especially sensitive areas.

Blomberg fears that such permits and regulation-wielders will stand between him and a constitutional up Chadwick Hill, a mile from his home. Lela counters that no permits will be needed to visit the newly protected areas; the BLM already has the power to limit access to them, although it has never done so, except in the case of large groups. The individual sites on Lopez currently receive up to 15,000 visitors each per year.

Opponents to the designation also point to traffic jams at the ferry docks, new or expanded parking lots at places like Watmough Bay, more pavement, the circumvention of Congress by the presidential proclamation process, the workability of the status quo (“If it isn't broken, why fix it?”), and the modesty of the San Juans' scenic offerings next to the spectacle of national monuments like Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante. But the undercurrent to all the fears is the assumption that Lopez, in particular, will degenerate into a species of open-air museum without a life of its own — that the island's beauty will prove its epitaph.

“A lot of those [objections] seem to be based on there being a dramatic increase in visitation, and I just don't believe that,” says Tom Reeve, another member of INCA's steering group, echoing Lela's view. “I can't see this turning the dial much. It's not like we're building visitors' centers. The experience is already here, and we're trying to establish protections for that experience.

“We're not asking for a set of rules. We're asking for governing principles.”

Then there's the question of permanence, a commodity in scant supply in the other Washington, where big decisions about national monuments and so much else are made and regularly remade. Indeed, Lela herself recalls that, 20 years ago, she and other conservation-minded Lopez Islanders felt that the critical-environmental-concern status assigned by BLM to some of the tracts back then “was permanent protection.”

“About three years ago we discovered it was not permanent protection,” she relates. “A new plan could be drawn up” to meet changing BLM management goals. That revelation spurred the current push for the NCA or national monument.

But permanent is a slippery concept. No fewer than 60 of the 162 places ever to have been national monuments have become something else.  Among those 60, almost half have become national parks or parts of national parks, but the record contains a few less reassuring cases, too: monument lands that became a golf course, a reservoir, or a highway. One monument, at an army fortification in South Carolina, got sold to private owners, who couldn't maintain it. Nature is now reclaiming the site.

Those few cases do not present a pattern, but future uncertainties are nonetheless what worries both sides in the debate. “I want these [areas] for my grandchildren,” Lela puts it.

Frank Penwell, president of the San Juans chapter of the Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights, which operates in Washington and California, cites the future to justify the anti-monument stance: “I don't want the culture [of the islands] changed — more tourist-based, and the farming goes away.”

“What you've got is a bunch of rich people wanting to have their way with the community,” he says in describing the pro-monument faction.

Of course, the unanimous county council vote suggests that far more than rich people want the monument stats. On the other hand, the increasingly tourist-dependent San Juans are not the most difficult place to push through an initiative that looks Green-with-a-capital-G and holds the promise of more visitors toting their money to the islands.

“I'm very worried that it's going to be exploited as a marketing tool,” says Ed Kilduff, a Lopez environmental consultant who opposes the initiative. The status quo “is more under-the-radar and therefore more protective.”

Kilduff wonders at the large number of businesses that have signed on to the INCA effort. “That kind of contradicts itself. Are we doing this for conservation or for business?”

That argument is countered by Reeve, whose property adjoins the Iceberg Point parcel, another of the Lopez sites: “If we ever lost these lands, it would be really hard on the local economy.” The monument designation, he adds, “assures me of the long-term protection of my backyard, as opposed to that land going into some other ownership or use down the road.”

Dylan Weber, a Lopez farm worker who favors the monument designation, uses the analogy of a grocery store in looking at the economics of any increase in visitations. Reaching the BLM lands from the ferry dock means traversing almost the entire length of the island, with its only village more or less en route. The geography reminds him of supermarkets where the staples that everyone comes in for are at the back of the store, necessitating a tour down aisles bristling with other things to buy.

On the basis of a snapshot of the results, the INCA website's claims that 93.1% of respondents to one of two local newspaper polls conducted online this spring support preserving the BLM lands as a national conservation area. The INCA website, at the time, directed its visitors to the newspaper's poll, and the polling technology allowed for one vote per browser used — meaning as many votes as one has cybergizmos.

The newspapers in question did not supply the polls' final results. Another community forum, the website Lopez Rocks, has attracted two posts on the monuments issue, and commenters on those pages have favored the proposal by a seven-to-four margin.

But, while opposition appears substantial, it is opposition without energy. Many of those not supporting the proposal expressed resignation to what their community's businesses and most influential citizens are backing almost uniformly. Fear of alienating neighbors in a tightly knit community came out in several interviews for this article. “Many people are [afraid of retaliation],” Kilduff put it. “I don't mean fire-bombing, I mean social ostracism. You get severe criticism at the least.”

LaConner farmer Curtis Johnson, whose family has since 1954 owned acreage that visitors must cross to reach Iceberg Point, expresses neutrality in the debate, but says fighting the designation “would be like pissing into the ocean to raise the tide. The best thing you can do is put a good face on it. It'd be nice to turn things back to 1954. . .  but the genie [of tourism] is out of the bottle, and you're not going to put it back in.”

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