Feds: Protect pristine lands in San Juan Islands

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: SeattlePI.com

The Obama administration wants to protect a network of pristine federally owned lands in the San Juan Islands as a national conservation area, in a proposal sent Thursday to U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar identifies 18 places in nine states, from our San Juans to the San Juan Mountains of Colorado to Oregon's famous "Wild Rogue" River. "These conservation lands play a critical role in keeping local economies health and active," Salazar wrote to Boehner.

The San Juan Islands National Conservation Area would embrace 955 acres under jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. It would protect remote Patos Island, as well as secluded Watmough Bay on Lopez Island and the scenic bluffs around Turn Point Lighthouse on Stuart Island.

"Patos Island is very beautiful, very, very secluded, full of marine life -- and eagles -- and untouched," said Collin Jergens, a kayaker who knows the northernmost island in the San Juans.

San Juan County commissioners and the Whatcom County Council have endorsed the conservation area. In September, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., introduced legislation that would designate the conservation area. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is a cosponsor.

"With visitor traffic increasing, it's time to have a clear management plan in place to protect these crown jewels," Cantwell said Thursday. "This locally driven plan will ensure these cherished lands remain protected, and access to the public better managed to accommodate continued visitor use and enjoyment."

A very conservative Eastern Washington congressman will play a key role in whether the conservation area gets created. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., an outspoken critic of wilderness, chairs the House Natural Resources Committee.

The San Juans proposal must pass through the panel. It also has jurisdiction over a bill to add 22,000 acres to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area and protect the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River.

Cantwell steered the Alpine Lakes proposal through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday. Its main authors are a Republican -- Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash. -- and a Democrat, Murray.

"These scenic lands in the San Juan Islands attract more than 70,000 tourists each year and we need a clear management plan to protect these lands," Cantwell said in a recent statement. She noted strong local support for the proposal.

The Interior Department already manages the San Juan Island National Historical Park, which embraces the "Pig War" camps where United States and English troops faced off in the late 19th century, before marine boundaries between the San Juans and Canada's Gulf Islands were established.

Although far less familiar than the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management oversees a number of famous places in the American West.

The Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area, at the western edge of Las Vegas, is beloved by rock climbers and filled with bird life drawn by its streams and springs. 

The Morley Nelson Birds of Prey Sanctuary, on the Snake River near Boise, protects the largest concentration of raptors in the lower 48 states. It is famous for soaring golden eagles and fast-diving prairie falcons.  

Salazar is proposing to add several other renowned places -- if politicians like Doc Hastings let him.

The proposal includes Beauty Mountain in the desert mountains between Riverside and San Diego counties in California. 

Another place proposed for protection is Jerry Peak, which would be added to the proposed Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness in south-central Idaho. That wilderness proposal has broad bipartisan support, and includes one of the West's most distinctive mountains, 11,900-foot Castle Peak.