One thousand acres of unique and fragile San Juan Islands land sit waiting for an imminent management plan that will outline the next 20 years of protection and recreation.
The San Juan Islands National Monument, designated in 2013 by President Barack Obama, protects 65 sites in the San Juan Islands. These acres are currently part of the portfolio of the Bureau of Land Management [BLM] under general agency regulations and await a resource management plan [RMP] to be finalized and implemented. As this plan for the monument languishes at the federal level, helping hands on the ground are tied and much is left in limbo locally.
Tourism that swamps Washington State Ferries and floatplanes to the San Juan Islands saw little reprieve this year, despite a pandemic summer. Visitors to the islands search for an escape into another way of life, a deep dive and direct access into the beauty of the Salish Sea, jewel of the Pacific Northwest, and their presence isn’t slowing down.
With growing numbers of visitors every year, local voices are raised to find ways to balance recreation and protection of the public lands.
‘Sitting on their hands’
The monument, though protected, is basically open land, said Thomas Reynolds, chair of the Monument Advisory Committee [MAC] and a resident of Brown Island.
The original national monument proclamation designated the need for a such committee: a group of members that represent stakeholder interests in the land locally and within the state.
“While we’ve been developing the plan, the BLM staff have been unable to do a lot of hands-on management that the monument needs,” said Tom Reeve, a Lopez Islander and one of the original advocates to protect the land. “Without a plan the BLM are just sitting on their hands.”
The BLM can take urgent action, Reeve said, like safety measures or protecting resources, but they can’t build new trails or change conditions on the ground in significant ways. Many sites in the monument don’t yet have an existing management plan, and that leads to what Reeve calls “generic BLM land management.”
It’s the same management as would be applied for several hundred acres of BLM land in Nevada or Utah, Reeve said, “but that doesn’t translate as well in the islands.”
Because many of the national BLM lands are substantial in size, relatively isolated and congruent, the San Juan Islands pose different issues. The monument is made up of leftover portions of federally owned land, outlying rocks and reefs that support fragile ecosystems and larger sites such as Iceberg Point on Lopez Island where parcels were owned by the government and joined together, Reynolds said.
“The undeveloped refuge rocks, reefs, and islands … provide a dramatic natural setting in the San Juan Archipelago,” the Conservation Plan for the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge states. “Hundreds of thousands of annual visitors … appreciate the scenic natural beauty.”
The RMP will be an improvement, many hope, to help keep the monument sites protected for the next 15 to 20 years.
“Having a plan is absolutely a good thing,” Reeve said. “The BLM can’t do decent trail management, and they can’t do a lot of the local policy making that they need to do in order to manage the increased visitations to the islands.”
Many visitors, multiple uses
Increased visitation to the islands highlights a set of issues within the proposed RMP that the public raised during meetings and submitted protests. While the plan detailed increased trail building and care and habitat restorations, it also encouraged increased dispersed camping, hunting and target shooting, public access on marine haulouts and potential for wildfire risks.
The islands are unique in their designation of small rocks and reefs as marine haulouts — places where animals can rest and reproduce. These portions of land provide important natural habitat areas in an increasing fragile island ecosystem, and have protections from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Service. Still, the proposed RPM would allow public access on 10 of these haulouts, as well as many more similar rocks and reefs.
The haulout rocks are “visually indistinguishable from the BLM rocks,” Reeve said. That poses a challenge if public access were allowed on some, but not all, small rocks within the islands.
“If we are going to have a plan, I would really like it to be a plan that does not cause harm,” Reeve said.
Similarly, the MAC raised concerns about these issues potentially harming the land.
“We believe dispersed camping should not be allowed because those areas are fragile, we have no way to monitor or patrol it,” Reynolds said. “That’s an area where having rules in place would protect the monument.”
Lack of boundaries
Hunting and target-shooting recreation do not require users to stay on designated trails, leading to the threat of damage to fragile habitats and cultural objects, an issue raised during the protest period by Islanders for the San Juan Islands National Monument. As with dispersed camping, lack of boundaries could lead to confusion about where off-trail land use is allowed.
Off-trail uses endanger wetlands, grasslands, native flowering plants and mosses, small vegetated islands and more, according to the nonprofit Kwiaht, a local conservation biology laboratory. With increased recreational traffic like dispersed camping, it is even more likely that humans will venture off the designated trails.
Providing input on issues like this during the drafting of the plan was also difficult for the MAC.
When the Trump administration took office, advisory committees were shut down for a period of time, and as three-year member terms expired, their positions were left empty. The San Juan Islands MAC was left without quorum and therefore was left out of the room during much of the RMP planning, said Reynolds.
“There are errors in the description of the process that the RMP went through that make readers believe that the MAC was intimately involved all along the way, which just isn’t true,” Reynolds said.
By the time the MAC had filled its quorum enough to hold a meeting in August, nearly three years had gone by since the RMP planning began.
Members on the MAC hold positions from a variety of local perspectives, from local government to education to private landowners. Several open positions remain unfilled, despite many qualified recommendations. One of the still outstanding positions is a slot for a tribal member.
Coast Salish voices
The response from the public on these issues was profound and well-spoken, said the San Juan Islands National Monument Manager, Marcia deChadenedes. And among them were voices from the tribes.
“It is important that in the official federally recognized advisory committee that [tribe] voices are present,” deChadenedes said. “To have them in the conversation with the other stakeholders, that is the real accomplishment.”
To fill the gap on the MAC, all of the local consulting tribes were invited to speak on the agenda, deChadenedes said.
“We had seven tribes represented at our MAC meeting,” deChadenedes said. “That is unheard of, and that is how invested they are.”
Tribes who attended the MAC meeting were the Samish Indian Nation, the Tulalip Tribe of Washington, the Swinomish Island Tribal Community, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.
Patti Gobin, a member and Natural Resources Department Special Projects Manager of the Tulalip Tribe, grew up fishing in the San Juan Islands with her dad, but was told never to go onto the islands.
Her first time setting foot there came with an invitation to tour Patos Island — which is managed cooperatively by Washington State Parks and the BLM — with other monument stakeholders. Everywhere Gobin looked she saw camas, historically a vital food source for her people, in full bloom. She listened while the rest of the group spoke of the importance of showcasing the explorers and the lighthouse, and realized she was the only tribe member voice present.
“I started crying and said, I’m here to tell you that the history didn’t begin with the lighthouse,” Gobin said. She is excited to see their footprint in the islands again, and with more acknowledgement of it.
“Our voice is a long time coming,” Gobin said. “We need to tell the story of the Coast Salish people.”
A waiting game
For now, all parties await a finalized plan. Public comments, a letter review from Governor Inslee, tribe member feedback and community information are all submitted.
“We are in a waiting period,” Reynolds said. “We have made our commentary.”
With a change of administration in January, there may be an added slowdown on getting the RMP finalized. There is no set date to expect the completed plan, and the wait could extend through spring 2021, Reynolds said. But locally, a positive outlook remains.
deChadenedes will voluntarily step down as monument manager to allow a new manager to tackle implementation of the new plan.
“So many people in the islands are actual boots on the ground for this monument … it’s the best opportunity I can do to give that new manager the chance to meet all of these stakeholders and build relationships with them and come to agreements and have trust and understand all the individual concerns and figure out how to put that all together,” deChadenedes said. “For them, it’s a golden opportunity.”
Despite uncertainties of where the plan is at the federal level, local voices have been loud and look forward to implementing a plan that they can root for.
“The MAC is very hopeful that we are going to see appropriate stewardship of the monument,” Reynolds said. “That’s the bottom line.”