Recreation over preservation? Residents and Natives worry the San Juan Islands could be ‘loved to death’

The federal government helped make the islands a national monument. But locals worry a Trump-era focus on making public lands productive could be their undoing.

Aerial view of a grey day in the San Juan Islands

Visitors are treated to spectacular views atop the highest point on the San Juan Islands, a 2,409-foot peak called Mount Constitution on Orcas Island, July 3, 2009. (Carey J. Williams/AP)

Rising from the heart of the Salish Sea, the San Juan Islands have always been a gathering place.

For at least 10,000 years, this cluster of 450 green-on-gray islands has drawn Native people who followed the salmon and seasons. In the 1860s, English and American soldiers shared one island for a decade in a border standoff triggered by the death of a trespassing pig. Today, tourists and wanderers tugged by the cobble beaches and quiescent waters arrive on ferries and floatplanes by the thousands, searching for wild peace.

On April 1, 2013, U.S. Department of the Interior brass gathered there to celebrate with state and tribal leaders and community members. About a thousand acres of forests, meadows, beaches, three lighthouses and dozens of islands had been rechristened a national monument — preserved, they contended, for generations to come.

Now, though, that monument is yet another point of tension for the Trump administration’s controversial public lands policies, leaving some who fought for decades to protect the San Juans concerned that federal management may harm the ecologically sensitive islands irreparably.

The Bureau of Land Management, which counts the San Juan Islands National Monument as part of its 245-million-acre portfolio, spent the past six years drawing up a plan to direct activity at the monument for decades. The fruits of BLM’s $2.4 million-and-counting effort is expected to be formalized this spring.

Released in near-final form in November, the BLM resource management plan envisions a robust trail system and habitat restoration program. But the plan also leaves the door open to shooting sports, herbicide spraying and, most troubling for those who fought for the land, camping on offshore rocks and small islands. Sites treasured by Coast Salish people on some of the smaller islands have already been trashed by visitors.

“The relationship between BLM and the community has been deteriorating for years now, and it’s not because there’s something wrong with the national monument,” said Russel Barsh, director of Kwiáht, an ecology laboratory based in the islands. “It’s because there’s something wrong with the Trump administration’s relationship to public lands — they don’t like having a lot of land that isn’t making money.”

Critics contend an administration-wide aversion to local guidance is undermining the monument, and that BLM’s plan prioritizes recreation over preservation. In interviews and in many of the 1,200 public comments offered on a draft of the plan and at public meetings, islanders and monument supporters returned to a fear that the San Juans will be “loved to death.”

‘In the BLM, things are open until they're closed’

In 2018, San Juan National Monument had at least 110,000 visitors — probably many more, as half of visitors access the monument by boat, and most of the islands, rocks and reefs aren’t monitored. That’s a slim slice of the 750,000 to 1 million visitors the San Juans see each year, though managers expect attendance to rise.

The increase in popularity is felt most on Lopez Island, where the monument covers nearly half off all publicly accessible land. Carrying the broken topography of the Salish Sea, Lopez Island resembles a lowercase “b” in shape and is one of four San Juan islands serviced by Washington state ferries. Iceberg Point sits at its southwest corner, part of a 500-acre collection of forests and meadows that forms the largest block of the monument. The marshes and thickets near here were visited over millennia by Coast Salish people farming camas, a flowering, edible cousin of asparagus. Fir and oak forests harbor a colony of showy Jacob’s ladder. It’s the only spot on Lopez Island where the sky-blue flower is known to grow.

Before the monument was established, Iceberg Point and nearby BLM lands weren’t all easily or legally accessible. Residents snuck or begged their way through the private land surrounding BLM’s holding, or circled around by boat. Graduating high schoolers had to skitter across private land to splash in Watmough Bay. User trails and customs eventually firmed up, but tourists were left in the dark.

“These lands were sort of viewed as a community secret,” says Madrona Murphy, who grew up on Lopez and now serves as a botanist for Kwiáht.

“The community here saw BLM as a natural ally in continuing to look after these lands,” Murphy continued. “I’m not sure if the community understood that [BLM] is this many-headed Hydra of a federal agency.”

For three decades, Sally and Tom Reeve have made their home next to Iceberg Point, now one of the most popular spots in the monument they helped create. The Reeves were leaders in a push in the mid-2000s for a congressional declaration protecting the land. When that stalled, allies guided the islanders to petition the White House for the executive order that eventually created the monument out of BLM lands.

While BLM manages millions of acres of protected lands, the San Juans presented challenges the agency usually doesn't see, Tom Reeve said. BLM lands are usually remote and vast; the San Juans are a populated patchwork of properties with pockets of wilderness. National, state and county parks mix with other public lands, with no clear lines between jurisdictions.

“We are atypical of the many square miles of sagebrush-per-staffer that BLM is used to,” Tom Reeve said. “BLM is used to dealing with hundreds of thousands of acres, but for the San Juan Islands a hundred acres is a really big chunk of land.”

Much as Reeve says the BLM didn’t understand the islands, islanders didn’t really get BLM’s aversion to restrictions. The agency had held properties around the islands for decades, and residents treated them more or less like other protected public lands. Islanders assumed — incorrectly, as they would learn — that the little islands were off limits to boaters, and that camping was prohibited in areas where it wasn’t expressly permitted.

“In the BLM, things are open until they're closed,” said BLM planner Lauren Pidot, who leads the nearly completed effort to plot the monument’s future. Aside from some restrictions in the monument proclamation and a 1990 order restricting high-impact activities on Lopez, she added, “people could do kind of what they wanted here.”

The plan Pidot and her team developed will restrict access to and direct activities in parts of the monument that are currently, if quietly, wide open.

Pidot points out certain preservation-oriented provisions: More than half of the park will be closed to all camping. Forests encroaching on meadows burned into being by native people and kept clear by grazing sheep will be held back. Miles of haphazardly broken trail will be closed, and significant sites — stones containing fossilized worms, ground holding tools made with bones from Ice-Age bison — will be preserved.

But what the plan does not outright prohibit worries many of the monument's supporters. Target shooting will be allowed during hunting season anywhere in the islands open to hunting, herbicides and pesticides could be used throughout the monument, and tent camping may be allowed in the 274 acres of the monument that include most of the smaller islands.

While Pidot is quick to note that fresh hearings and processes would precede any backcountry camping or herbicide spraying, she acknowledges those assurances have not assuaged some on the islands.

“It’s an area that is very beloved by the local folks,” Pidot said. “But there's also a lot of concern about loving the area too much.”

A nexus for Natives

In a change from past practice, tribal governments were enthusiastically welcomed into the planning for the monument, said Tulalip special projects manager and tribal member Patti Gobin, who was her government’s leading voice in the effort. 

The San Juans were a “nexus” for her ancestors and other Coast Salish people as they moved “from white cap to white cap” between the mountains and the sea, said Gobin. 

“Home was where the fish were,” she said. “The San Juan Islands were a critical gathering place for all Coast Salish. The resources were abundant. … Everything gathers there in the San Juan Islands. Those were a part of our homelands.”

The treaties that sequestered Native people on reservations, like the Tulalip Reservation north of Everett, also guaranteed their right to continue fishing, hunting and gathering from their traditional lands and waters. Tulalip tribal members fish in the San Juans today.

Gobin has fished in the San Juans since she was a child, but she was raised not to go onto the islands; family members told her she would not be welcome. So she was apprehensive when asked to meet with islanders and officials from nontribal governments crafting the monument plan. 

Her fears were soon dispelled, but it became clear to her that, for some, the history of the islands “began with the lighthouse” that settlers erected, not her people. 

Gobin said she is concerned BLM’s plan for the monument does too little to protect cultural sites and the environment on the islands. In the Coast Salish view, she said, the two are interconnected: People, the salmon, the land and the sea are parts of a whole; the rivers and the blood in her veins are one.

“We can find a path,” she said. “The Great Northwest is still The Great Northwest, but if we don’t come together to protect it, we’re going to just be like everybody else. I’ve been fishing out there all my life with my father, but I want my grandchildren to go dig camas bulbs there.”

A bicyclist passes a wooden alpaca sculpture along a road
Ross Jonak pedals past a sculpture on Lopez Island, June 29, 2009. (Carey J. Williams/AP)

A plan with few fans

The plan has drawn wide opposition. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, a Lake Stevens Democrat whose district includes the San Juans, has pressed the Department of the Interior and BLM to prohibit camping outside designated areas. As Larsen sees it, BLM lacks the capacity to "ensure visitors on national monument land are being good stewards.”

State Rep. Debra Lekanoff, a Democrat representing the San Juans who also works for the Swinomish tribe, said the plan endangers the area’s ecological and cultural treasures.

A Tlingit from Alaska, Lekanoff says that in not yet inventorying all the culturally significant sites within the monument, BLM has already reneged on a promise.

“There are places within the San Juans that are embedded in the bloodlines of the Coast Salish people, and it's so important for us who called the place ours to honor that,” Lekanoff said. “It is a complete disregard by this administration to not put practices in place that honor what their own federal government has agreed to.”

In tribal circles, news spread of islands littered with trash and human waste, said Lekanoff. A burial ground on one island, she added, was plundered.

“If we can't take care of that now,” she said, “we’re not going to be able to take care of that in the future.”

The influx of tourists and spreading awareness of BLM’s permissive rules have arrived at a moment when the Department of the Interior has sought to intensify recreational usage of federal lands.

Flanked in March 2018 by RV and boat builders, buffalo and elk heads, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order directing all Department of the Interior agencies to expand recreational opportunities on public lands and waterways. Industry leaders praised Zinke’s “new emphasis” on expanding infrastructure inside America’s federal lands while trimming oversight.

The order was part of a wider shift toward extraction and development on public lands in the West, said Danielle Murray of the Conservation Lands Foundation, an advocacy organization that supports stewardship of the 35 million acres of BLM land with protected status.

Department of the Interior leaders have attempted to shrink some protected areas, notably Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. When unable to redraw the map or rewrite the rules, Murray said, the department has opened monuments to off-road vehicles, target shooting and hunting.

Recreation is promoted as a path to make the land productive. The benefits of a place simply being, Murphy said, are not acknowledged.

That intrinsic worth, she said, is central to life in the islands.

“It’s something that you can be witness to and be inspired by just knowing it's there — that there's life going on,” said Murphy, a botanist with Kwiáht. “It’s part of what sustains people here.”

‘There was no real public voice’

For 27 years, Tom Reynolds has been sustained by his place in the San Juans. He lives across the water from the town of Friday Harbor in one of 45 homes on 78-acre Brown Island.

Reynolds is an outdoorsman in the Salish Sea style: kayaking and paddle boarding, watching wildlife and taking in the tidewater. In late 2014, those hobbies earned the semiretired biotechnologist an appointment as a recreation representative on the fledgling 12-member advisory committee formed to guide BLM’s administration of the monument.

Five years on, Reynolds chairs a committee that doesn’t really exist. As members’ three-year terms expired, its roster emptied to five. The committee has met just once since President Trump’s inauguration.

“There was no real public voice,” Reynolds said. “One of the things that to me is personally upsetting is that if you read the resource management plan, you would think the committee met consistently the entire time and provided input consistently, and that's a lie.”

The committee’s incapacitation came largely by design. An executive order in March 2017 suspended community committees involved with land management. Two months later, Zinke paused all 200 Department of Interior advisory groups.

Those that were reinstated a year later saw their purposes changed and their memberships recast, said Murray, senior legal and policy director of the Conservation Lands Foundation. Many came back populated, Murray said, with members who “represent and advance Trump priorities.”

“This is an issue we have seen throughout the West,” she said. “They can now more easily ignore the rest of the country.”

In the San Juans, Department of the Interior foot-dragging kept the advisory committee from meeting and providing input. Meanwhile, Pidot and other BLM managers well-regarded by the committee’s members drew up plans for the monument.

Pidot and Jeff Clark, BLM’s community liaison in the region, said the committee members shouldered their work enthusiastically and that while they could meet, that they made an impact. 

“Out of all the advisory councils and committees in the BLM, that is one of the most engaged populations,” said Clark. “We never are lacking in a pool of good and appropriate applicants. The real issue is that we've had a number of things that have just kind of put a stop to filling positions, and that's largely out of our control.”

In addition to the Department of the Interior-wide suspension of committees, reappointments to the committee were delayed by last year’s shutdown of the federal government and an extensive bureaucratic process that requires the department secretary to sign off on appointments, Clark said. He said he is hopeful the monument committee will have enough members to meet again once the plan is finalized.

The failure to fill the committee invites legal action from those upset with the monument plan, a development that even critics of the plan regard as unfortunate.

“They're going to get sued,” Reynolds said. “I don't know who's going to sue them, but they're going to get sued.”

The last major hurdle left before the plan is finalized is a review by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office. A spokesman for Inslee declined to comment on the review before it has been shared with BLM, which is not obligated to change its plan to address any concerns the governor’s office may raise.

Some monument supporters hope to bend the BLM plan into a tool for preservation. Lekanoff envisions a rising to protect the land, to ensure the monument’s management draws on the values of the islands’ first inhabitants and the mission outlined when it was created. Reynolds and the Reeves see the plan, flawed as it is, as a potential tool for better stewardship.

“Frankly, it will be wonderful for us to actually have a resource management plan [so] we can start to work,” Tom Reeve said. “It’s important work, and the sooner [it] starts [the] better.”

Murphy would rather see the plan scrapped and the monument closed to visitors until a conservation-oriented framework is shaped.

“The monument was established to protect something that is very precious,” she said. “It's a unique set of plant communities, a unique set of landscapes that people have looked after for thousands of years.

“The focus on recreation ... is really gonna destroy something that is irreplaceable.”


Correction: This article originally misspelled state representative Debra Lekanoff's name.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Levi Pulkkinen

Levi Pulkkinen is a Seattle-based journalist specializing in law and justice issues in the Pacific Northwest.