Conservation effort gets county council boost

Islands Sounder - Steve Wehrly

Protection of more than 1,000 acres of local land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management moved a step forward April 3, when the San Juan County Council authorized sending a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar seeking designation of the land as a National Monument.

More than 70 islanders filled the San Juan County Council's hearing room in Friday Harbor and watched simulcasts on Orcas and Lopez. Continuing an effort started three years ago by Islanders for the San Juan Islands National Conservation Area, most but not all of the crowd was seeking protection for more than 50 parcels of land throughout the San Juans.

After hearing from both sides, the council voted unanimously to send the letter to Salazar, asking that President Obama proclaim the land a National Monument.

Designation of BLM land as a national monument is an alternative to legislation introduced in Congress by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Rick Larsen to create a National Conservation Area to protect the lands. Councilman Jamie Stephens, who recently returned from meetings on the subject in Washington, D.C., said the legislation has "little chance of passage in an election year," but commends Cantwell and Larsen for supporting the idea.  Asha Lela of Lopez, who accompanied Stephen to D.C., and who testified at the hearing, hailed both approaches as, "two routes up the same mountain."

Highlights of the April 3 hearing include opposing statements from Bill Wright of Friday Harbor and Cindy Carter of Orcas, who warn that, "we really don't know what they have planned" for the BLM-owned lands. Testimony in support of a presidential proclamation came from several of 16 students from Spring Street International School attending the meeting with science teacher Chuck Schietinger of Lopez Island.

Supporters singled out lighthouses on Patos and Stuart Islands, and at Cattle Point on San Juan Island, as local "monuments" that would benefit from protection. Mark Smaalders of Orcas stressed both recreation and habitat protection as important to all islanders, and Wendy Mickle of Lopez pointed out the economic benefits of protection throughout the islands.

After the meeting, Lela pointed out that more than 30 Lopez "monitors" already are working to protect BLM properties there, and other islanders, including Linda Hudson and "a dozen" others, help conservation efforts on Patos as volunteer docents on the island, located just west of Sucia.