Perhaps the permanent protection of special places deserves the utmost of slow and deliberative processes — the more special the place, the more deliberative the process.
That suggestion might help ease the impatience of those frustrated by the length of time it has taken the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to move the planning process for the San Juan Islands National Monument management plan forward.
Almost 10 years ago, on March 25, 2013, then-President Barack Obama signed a presidential proclamation to protect, conserve and restore approximately 1,000 acres of BLM lands which included 60 to 70 small islands plus parcels at Cattle Point on San Juan Island and Iceberg Point and Point Colville on Lopez Island.
A draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and management plan to guide activities on these lands was published Oct. 5, 2018. Following public comment, “The San Juan Islands National Monument Proposed Resource Management Plan and Final EIS” was released in November 2019.
Since then, there have been delays, in filling the monument manager position and filling appointments on the Monument Advisory Committee (MAC). The absence of a National Environmental Policy Act planner has contributed to a delay of the Record of Decision (ROD) which details elements of the final Resource Management Plan (RMP).
At the most recent meeting of the MAC this May, the committee was told by BLM that the ROD would be released this fall before the next meeting of the committee on Oct. 6.
In a phone call on Sept. 1, Jeff Clark, a public information officer with BLM said, “The end is in sight.” He said the management plan was being reviewed by regional BLM directors, and that he expected it to be submitted to the Washington (D.C.) office by the end of next week.
Whether the ROD will be released before Oct. 6 is still a question, but the committee has already scheduled a December meeting just in case.
As of May 26, the final four vacant seats on the committee were finally filled. Meetings of the committee must be published in the Federal Register at least 90 days in advance, a requirement that has also contributed to delay.
Progress on the ground
Monument manager Brie Chartier began work in May. She found housing on San Juan Island and is establishing connections with the community, and planning to work several days a week in the Lopez Island BLM office. With a background in biology and work experience in outdoor education, she describes herself as an “outdoor enthusiast.”
Chartier spent the week of Aug. 17 at the San Juan County Fair, doing outreach and education in the “Green Village” and networking with other local environmental groups.
Coordination with other resource management agencies is a major focus of the monument, and there are several work groups already in place. One is the Terrestrial Managers Work Group, a network of 17 agencies that manage lands in the islands. The monument designation applies only to lands above mean high tide.
Another group that formed this year is a Tribal Forum, which met on May 17. In this government-to-government format, representatives from tribes throughout the area met with representatives from BLM, in an attempt to build consensus among tribes, since one tribal representative cannot speak on behalf of all tribes. Patti Gobin, representing the Tulalip Tribe, expressed gratitude at the MAC meeting for the forum and said these lands are “critical to future generations” and “we need to get busy.”
Also at the May MAC meeting, Jon Snyder, a senior policy advisor on outdoor recreation and economic development from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, said he was “very excited” about the new manager and the Tribal Forum, but he disappointed to hear of the delay in filling the open positions on the MAC. “I was hoping that was a problem of the previous administration,” he said.
He was referring to the fact that in April 2017, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order to review the protected status of national monuments created over the past 20 years.
According to Russel Barsh, director of Kwaiht, a nonprofit conservation biology laboratory in the San Juan Islands, “During the Trump administration there were games played, staff was cut, and offices were shuttered. This coincided with the MAC shutdown and the draft (plan) in limbo, languishing with no resources.”
Snyder also said he wasn’t clear if “the process will allow our comments to amend the plan” and said that the process was still “a bit opaque.”
‘Beyond slow … damaging’
The proposed management plan listed alternatives ranging from taking no action to different levels of activity.
Chartier said she does not know yet specifically what the management plan will say, but traditionally BLM has a multiuse policy. Many islanders, including the San Juan County Council, commented on the need to limit dispersed camping and hunting. Chartier pointed out that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regulates hunting.
For some who have been involved in the process for years, the delays appear to have caused actual harm. Former MAC member Rhea Miller at the May meeting said, “This kind of bureaucracy is really damaging to our environment in a time of climate change. We’ve also had a huge population influx in the last two years.”
“I know slow is not necessarily bad,” she said, “but this is beyond slow, and it is damaging.”
Barsh presented research at the May MAC meeting done by Kwiaht in Eastsound on Indian Island which is managed by BLM. Over 14 years, studies show that 36,000 visitors crossed the tidelands to Indian Island. Barsh stressed the need for signage, seasonal closures to protect nesting birds, and to stop promoting tourism.
In a more recent interview, Barsh said that when the monument was first proposed, “a lot of people felt already there were too many people wandering around on places that were basically felt to be spiritual. Folks on Lopez were pressing for more protection of these special places and wanted to raise the legal standard.”
At this point, Barsh said, “We feel this is a massive broken promise. It’s a charade. What we’ve got is promotion. Not just no stewardship, but negative stewardship.”
BLM, he said, “is an enormous federal agency where one office doesn’t necessarily communicate with another, and decisions are made thousands of miles away. We need signage, fencing of rare plants, and interpretation now.”
Chartier is more optimistic. Already she is working with local volunteers who provide her with daily reports about activities on certain lands. “No one wants to drive more visitation,” she said. She expects that the management plan will provide guidance for creating an interpretive plan, and what topics should be included.
At some point, the Record of Decision will be released and the final Resource Management Plan will be adopted.
The next steps to come in the story of this islands monument are the real-life challenge of dealing with and resolving issues such as the number of visitors on these lands, what behaviors and activities are allowed, encouraged and discouraged under a multiuse policy, and the balance between local interest and outside interest in this relatively remote and pristine wilderness area.
[Also read “Vulnerable lands — and creatures — of San Juan Islands National Monument await management plan,” Salish Current, Dec. 4, 2020.]
[Ed.: Feature caption updated Sept. 10, 2022.]
— Reported by Nancy DeVaux
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