Remember the Barack Obama era? When he was president 10 years ago, he signed a proclamation establishing the San Juan Islands (SJI) National Monument on March 25.
The monument designation is the latest among several efforts to ensure greater protection of the exceptional marine and coastal environments of the San Juan Islands. In 1986 the first Puget Sound Water Quality Management Plan was adopted, and is now administered by the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency. In 1994 an ill-fated proposal to create a National Marine Sanctuary morphed into the Northwest Straits Commission and local Marine Resource Committees.
Now, the SJI National Monument plan will guide activities on 65 sites composing approximately 1,000 acres of land.
An 11:30 a.m. celebration on March 25 at the Friday Harbor Grange will commemorate both the anniversary of the proclamation and the brand-new Record of Decision and Approved Resource Management Plan (RMP), which was eight years in the making. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) director Barry Bushue and other BLM officials will be attending, said monument manager Brie Chartier.
“This is pretty exciting. If you look across the bureau at these plans, this is the first one to get completed in three-and-a-half years,” observed BLM Spokane District manager Kurt Pindel in announcing at the February meeting of the Monument Advisory Committee (MAC) that the management plan had been finalized and signed on Jan. 26.
Process, process, process
It has been a lengthy process for the San Juan Islands monument. Well before the presidential proclamation in 2013, community members were advocating for protection of these special areas.
Tom and Sally Reeve have been involved in trying to protect the BLM lands on the south end of Lopez Island for more than a decade. These parcels include Iceberg Point, Point Colville, Watmough Bay and Chadwick Hill; contiguous parcels totaling over 500 acres, half of all the monument acreage.
An outdoor advocate, Tom serves on the National Board for the Trust for Public lands and the Washington Wildlife Coalition.
”We have explored these lands on the south end of Lopez many times over 30 years; alone, with our kids, with friends and with visitors,” he said. “Everyone comes away from those visits better for it. I wanted to help to ensure that those experiences were available to everyone, including future generations.”
In 2010, Sally and Tom created a website and have kept it up-to-date with clear, easily understandable information and thorough documentation of the history of the monument designation, including the advocacy that led up to it, summaries of the process and the issues and active links to documents and comment letters.
“We realized these special places were appearing in guide books and articles about the San Juan Islands and that visitation would increase,” Sally said. “We saw bike tracks over reindeer lichen, tents pitched on a cultural burial site with beer cans thrown about, side trails trampling fragile plants. These lands and the community that cared about the lands deserved better.”
They hoped that the additional federal protection would provide the funding and staff needed to allow for public access in a manner respectful of the places and the cultural heritage.
Protection as a priority
Sally credited others in the Lopez community, calling out “those who had contributed much over many years to ensure these lands would be protected,” and said she and Tom “were honored to be asked to help in the pursuit of gaining permanent conservation protection for the lands.”
Tom admitted to having had concerns. “I’d seen legislation introduced in every session of Congress and in national party platforms calling for the federal government to divest itself of lands that were small and hard to manage,” he said. “I didn’t want these lands to be sold to private ownership, making a tiny dent in the federal deficit while causing a big loss to the island community. The monument designation ensures that BLM’s top priority in these landscapes is to protect them.”
Tom was appointed to the initial MAC which first met in October 2014. The RMP process officially kicked off in March 2015. After his first term ended in 2017, he applied again and was reappointed in 2022.
Between 2015 and 2019, BLM sought input on management issues, created draft alternative plans for analysis, received comments on those drafts, and published a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Proposed RMP of over 900 pages.
A 30-day “protest period” (federal terminology for all comments at that point) drew 236 “protest” submissions. All were rejected, except for the Washington governor’s, which carried additional weight as a “consistency review” by the State of Washington.
Adding to the lengthy federal National Environmental Policy Act process of a complete EIS and alternative actions analysis in the Proposed RMP, there were notable delays in completing the RMP due to the suspension of MAC meetings.
Due to a 2017 moratorium issued by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a Trump appointee, all BLM Advisory Committees — over 200 of them — were suspended to have their charters reviewed, Tom explained.
MAC meetings stopped between 2018 and 2022, and the terms of several MAC members expired. The committee did not have enough members for a quorum and were unable to formally discuss the proposed RMP during the review period.
A concerned San Juan County Council wrote in a letter to BLM in June 2020, “The MAC has been unable to meet in two-and-one-half years because of a lack of a quorum due to appointments not being made in a timely manner.” They urged BLM to fill the appointments as soon as possible, making sure to fill the seats as intended, representing different stakeholders.
Today, all seats are filled, but more community members will be needed to serve on the MAC in the coming years. There are three terms ending in May this year, five ending in October 2024 and four ending in May 2025
A vision and a plan
“The San Juan Islands National Monument provides an awe-inspiring experience that connects people to a flourishing, intact landscape, rich in natural, cultural, and historical features,” asserts a vision statement developed by the MAC and adopted by BLM.
The Proposed RMP reflected the multi-use philosophy mandated for BLM. Most BLM lands are very large parcels in the western U.S., used for grazing or mining. Dispersed camping is one of the uses generally allowed for recreation on BLM Lands. In 2018, Zinke issued an order to increase recreational opportunities on BLM properties. This followed a 2017 order to increase opportunities for “hunting, fishing, recreational shooting, and wildlife conservation.”
Traditionally, neither camping nor target shooting took place on BLM lands in the San Juan Islands, but the Proposed RMP opened the possibility for these activities.
The MAC and the public learned at the end of January what changes had been made to the proposed RMP.
The BLM made all the changes requested by Gov. Jay Inslee that were within the scope of the RMP.
According to Tom Reeve, the governor identified the same issues that the community was concerned about.
The Approved RMA and its appendix features each of the 19 Recreation Management Areas (RMA) and what activities are allowed there. The 46 sites not designated as RMAs include a total of 29 acres of small islands and 10 acres of rocks. These rocks and islands include marine mammal haulouts, seabird nesting sites, sensitive plant communities and Coast Salish cultural sites. The BLM will allow public access only for authorized scientific, educational and cultural uses.
Chartier summarized the other changes in the Approved RMP in a memo to the MAC:
- Eliminates dispersed camping in the monument (the only camping allowed within the monument is in designated campsites on Posey, Patos and Blind Islands, which are managed as state marine parks
- Closes 274 acres that would have been open to dispersed camping by permit. The EIS analyzed a full range of alternatives around camping for these areas. Demand is being met by existing campsites in the islands.
- Eliminates target shooting from monument lands. The RMP adjusts the language to prohibit target shooting within hunting season as well as outside of hunting season. The language now reads, “The discharge or use of a firearm or other dangerous weapon (e.g., bow-and-arrows, projectile weapons, etc.) will not be allowed within the monument, except as associated with lawful hunting practices.”
The approved RMP now begins the implementation phase, first of all, with more planning.
A Travel and Transportation Management Plan will detail access to monument lands and trails to minimize the impacts to wildlife habitat, reduce the introduction and spread of invasive weeds and prevent damage to cultural resources. Other plans to be developed are a cultural resource management plan, historic property management plans and an education and interpretation plan.
The office for the monument recently moved from Lopez Island to San Juan Island, facilitating a partnership with the San Juan Islands National Historical Park with whom office space is shared.
Resources will be critical to the monument fulfilling its mission. At present the monument manager is its sole staff. A seasonal recreation planner will be added this summer.
“BLM needs to allocate sufficient funding to support the monument,” wrote the group Islanders for the SJ Monument. “Having the RMP without funding to implement and enforce the RMP significantly diminishes BLM’s commitment to the proclamation.”
— Reported by Nancy DeVaux