Lopez Island 'most special place' to be held in local control - Salish Current
October 24, 2023
Lopez Island ‘most special place’ to be held in local control
Nancy DeVaux

Property at Watmough Bay purchased by the San Juan County Land Bank in 2022 will remain under local control, with supporters of the decision citing the land bank’s ability to move quickly in response to protection and community needs. An important site for salmon recovery, the area is recognized for deep Coast Salish cultural history as well. (Photo courtesy Peggy Bill / SJCLB)

October 24, 2023
Lopez Island ‘most special place’ to be held in local control
Nancy DeVaux

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A “most special place” along Watmough Bay on Lopez Island purchased for protection by the San Juan County Land Bank in 2022 will remain under local rather than federal management. 

When the property was purchased, the land bank planned that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) could add it to the San Juan Islands National Monument. San Juan County would be reimbursed the $2.5 million purchase price, and protection of the property would be accomplished.

However, the land bank commissioners voted on Oct. 6 to keep the property in its ownership, thereby enabling acceptance of $1.5 million dollars in state grants which require the land to remain under land bank ownership.

The grants from the state are $500,000 from the Salmon Recovery Board, and $1 million from the Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account. With these grants and the land bank retaining ownership, the land bank will cover the remaining $1 million of the initial purchase price, as well as additional maintenance and improvement costs.

Local support for local management

The larger question before the community was, which entity would do a better job managing the property for the long term? 

Lopez citizens turned out at several public meetings during September to express strong support for the land bank retaining ownership. They pointed out that it may take years for the BLM to make a purchase, and the land needs protection now. Reasons most frequently mentioned for supporting the land bank were its ability to be nimble, make decisions more quickly and be responsive to community needs.

Several community members including active supporters of the National Monument and a member of the Monument Advisory Committee (MAC) also spoke in favor of land bank ownership.

Asha Lela, who worked with BLM for 30 years, said, “I for one am adamant that this property be in local control.” While, she said, “I have my love for BLM,” she also spoke of the slowness and long-distance challenges of working with a federal agency.

Tracy Cottingham, a member of the MAC but speaking as an individual, praised land bank director Lincoln Bormann’s leadership for his work in partnering with all possible entities and “exploring how best to save this land.“

“To get those grants is no easy feat, “Cottingham said. “San Juan County is so lucky to have the land bank that has matching funds to secure these $1.5 million in grants. … Kudos on the grants; I would hate to have them not accepted.” 

More than scenic

“Yes, this property is extraordinarily scenic,” said Russel Barsh, director of the nonprofit conservation biology laboratory Kwiáht. “Yes, it has importance to salmon. … Watmough Bay is a critical nursery for chinook salmon. But the most extraordinary and precious dimension of this site was its cultural history; the fact that we estimate it has been occupied for at least 2,000 years.” 

After hearing strong support for local control from Lopez Island residents, the San Juan County Land Bank opted to retain ownership of a site (in solid yellow) near Watmough Bay. (Image courtesy SJCLB)

As the site has been an important reef net site for thousands of years, tribal involvement will be critical in the management of the property, no matter which entity is the owner.

“This is a site with living families, and some people who still live on Lopez, who reef-netted, within the last century. There is a huge opportunity for cooperation and collaboration,” Barsh said.

Monument manager Brie Chartier described BLM’s strengths to the land bank commissioners as having managed conservation lands for 117 years and currently managing 37 million acres of conservation lands, with over 905 segregate conservation units. She said that BLM, before making management decisions, would do an environmental analysis of the property, including a cultural assessment. “I have a huge support network of career experts that have dealt with every conceivable problem that I can reach out to,” she said.

She said that BLM already has established government-to-government relations with the tribes. “We have some extra tools here that are very new and unique to land management,” Chartier said. 

A tribal forum was established during the monument resource management planning process and has met quarterly. Tribes from throughout the region can talk with each other in a confidential forum. These private meetings give tribes a chance to discuss among themselves how best to participate in the process. Additionally, Chartier said, BLM has in place a $100,000 grant with a consultant to facilitate this process, which is just beginning.

Two Native Americans serve on the MAC: Sam Barr, Samish, representing tribal interests, and Shirley Williams, Lummi, representing ecology and wildlife.

Chartier said after hearing the concerns of Lopez citizens she realized there is a need to “go back and talk about the management plan and what we actually ended up with.” She acknowledged the uncertainty that arose during the 10-year management planning process and the need for additional outreach. 

Tribal co-stewardship would be a goal for both organizations, and Chartier pointed to functional models of strong co-stewardship currently operating in BLM.

Tribal responses, tribal rights

Chartier informed the land bank commissioners that she had sent a letter to the tribes, after collaborating with Bormann, and asked them to weigh in on the question of long-term ownership of the Watmough Addition. Five tribes responded, she reported, all indicating a preference for working with BLM, where they have nation-to-nation status and established treaty rights.

Barr, speaking for himself, explained his perspective that “land management would be potentially more stable, and more long-term” with BLM’s ownership: BLM has been formalizing relationships with the tribes that might be ahead of what the land bank is doing. “So I see a lot of positive potential in this land going to BLM — especially because it is so close to all these other BLM lands on south Lopez and could facilitate tribal access, especially by canoe,” he said.

Developing tribal relationships has also become a priority for San Juan County in recent years. 

After the Oct. 6 vote, Bormann said, “It really is a new opportunity for us, and the county in general” and stressed that both the land bank and county are committed to working with tribes.

San Juan County’s Environmental Stewardship Department hosted a three-session virtual workshop with Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D-Bow) to share Coast Salish relationships through the Salish Sea and connections to the environment and resources, and to discuss best practices when working with Washington tribes. San Juan was one of the first counties in the state to host the workshop.

Panelists included Jay Julius of the Lummi Nation, Patti Gobin of the Tulalip Tribes, Ray Harris of the Chemainus First Nation, Barr of the Samish Indian Nation and the Stillaguamish Tribe, and Diana Bob from Native Law Firm. These three sessions were recorded and are available for viewing.

Frances Robinson from the county’s Environmental Stewardship Department told the land bank on Oct. 6 that a new training is planned for county department heads and managers in January.

In 2021, San Juan County voters adopted the Coast Salish acknowledgement before the preamble to the San Juan County charter. Meetings of the land bank commission and MAC now begin with a reading of the acknowledgment:

“Let us acknowledge we reside on the ancestral lands and waters of the Coast Salish people who have called this place home since time immemorial and let us honor inherent, aboriginal and treaty rights that have been passed down from generation to generation.”

— Reported by Nancy DeVaux

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