Obama protects San Juans' beauty, mystery

The islands and the places being protected by presidential order are far richer than what we ordinarily think of.
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The San Juan Islands (highlighted)

The islands and the places being protected by presidential order are far richer than what we ordinarily think of.

After years of planning and lobbying by local and state interests, President Barack Obama declared federal lands in the San Juan Islands to be a new National Monument, a way of protecting them in perpetuity. The monument is composed of scores of small islands, rocks, reefs and other properties that are sprinkled throughout the archipelago.

The San Juans are far more than the islands you've visited by ferry and have heard about: San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and unwelcoming Shaw. Over the years there have been major fights over development, aquaculture and oil tanker traffic. One of the signal battles was waged back in the mid-1960s when a Seattle land-use lawyer fought to keep an aluminum plant from being built on Guemes Island. That attorney's name was John Ehrlichman, who went on to Watergate infamy.

The Guemes battle, won by the greens, helped make the residents of Pugetopolis aware of the value — and potential threats — to the islands. It was a sign of a rising environmental consciousness in a region that needed better planning. It signaled a desire to move away from dirty industries toward cleaner ones. The winning argument declared that a line had to be drawn protecting some areas from industrial development, and the San Juans Islands were on the no-go side of that line.

The islands have long been a place of contention. The United States and Great Britain almost went to war in 1859 over who owned San Juan Island after an American settler slew a Hudson's Bay Company pig. That incident was about more than British bacon as it heightened tensions over a disagreement about where the exact border between nations was, with both the U.S. and Britain claiming all or part of the islands. Warships converged and a joint occupation of San Juan Island was negotiated. One of those rattling his saber was a young military officer stationed there named George Pickett, later famous for leading a Confederate charge at Gettysburg.

The dispute was resolved in favor of the United States in 1872 by the arbitrator, Kaiser Wilhem I. The course to the new National Monument was partly set by the emperor of Germany, with an assist from a Confederate war hero.

In the early days, the San Juans had been the site of seasonal Native American camps and cultural uses. European farmers introduced sheep and cattle, and its waters have been fished by everyone. The Indian style reef-net fishing — where stationary boats extend nets in such a way as to trick migrating salmon into thinking the net's opening is a safe way over a reef — became widely identified with the islands. Often covered in dense green today, the islands were once heavily logged, the timber milled locally, and in the 19th century lime kilns at Roche Harbor belched smoke into the sky rendering the scene of a denuded Mordor.

The islands did recover: The kilns were eventually abandoned, the trees grew back and resorts began to sprout. The islands gradually transitioned to an economy focused on recreation and tourism. That was as predicted. In 1883, the Puget Sound Argus opined that the islands would become "a favorite resort in the near future, when Puget Sound's rapidly increasing population attracts those of wealth and leisure enough to afford picnics, pleasure excursions and other summer sports."

But in the first half of the 20th century, before major tourism really took hold, the San Juans were in transition. Retirees and urban escapists were moving in, but not rushing. Friday Harbor, the county seat, had canneries, not condos. When my family bought a summer place on Shaw in the early 1960s, the island had a sawmill, a one-room school house and a general store, and most of the local jobs were in either ranching or fishing.

The San Juans of that era, as today, were dotted with federally owned parcels that were an integral part of the island dreamscape, but had little practical value. They were largely undeveloped, unpopulated and anyone could visit them. Some small islands were considered grazing land by the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the properties designated by the president. Some of the tiny islands had been home to squatters. An island off of Shaw that we called Andy's Island, after a Native American hermit who had lived there, featured a dilapidated shack and a rickety outhouse built precariously over the rocks. We used to row out there to explore and play castaway. Our little dinghy encountered tides, seals and killer whales along the way.

For me, the San Juans have always had a Neverland feel, and these uninhabited bits of rock with grass, native cactus, dry moss and wild onion were a vital part of the landscape,and the fantasy, of what the islands are and what they offered. Even their names have a storybook quality. Looking at the map of the new monument properties you see names like Skull Island, Massacre Bay Rocks, Blind Island, Danger and Dinner Rocks, Pudding and Posey Islands, and Iceberg Point. They fit with the stories we heard of opium smugglers, rumrunners, Indian encampments, massacres, drownings, hermits and old homesteaders.

These protected San Juans bits aren't generally the places where folks build summer homes and saunas, or contemplate siting aluminum plants, but they are vital parts of the ecosystem — a bit like tide pools in reverse, small refuges for land-based flora and fauna amidst the Salish Sea. They're also beautiful, lonely, mysterious, quirky, and brimming with character that cannot be manufactured, only experienced.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.