National Conservation Area for the San Juans in congressional hands

Senator Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen last week introduced legislation that would turn federal land in the San Juan Islands into a National Conservation Area, aiming to boost protection and accessibility as the number of visitors to the islands increases.

Sen. Patty Murray is a cosponsor of that legislation, which was submitted by Cantwell and Larsen to their respective U.S. Senate and House committees on Sept. 14.

Cantwell said the islands need this bill to protect land that attracts more than 70,000 tourists each year.In late July, Cantwell and Larsen held a "community listening session" in Friday Harbor to gather feedback on the effort to create a National Conservation Area. Nearly 30 people attended that listening session, which included staff of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and local public officials.

"There is no question, our local economies rely upon a vibrant and beautiful ecological experience," said Washington state Senator Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. "Not only does this bill promote the preservation of our local natural resources, it meets a pressing need, ensuring that cherished lands remain open and accessible to tourists and families alike. Senator Cantwell and Congressman Larsen are to be congratulated for their vision in introducing this critical legislation."

For Tom and Sally Reeve, members of the Islanders for the National Conservation Area, the historic lighthouses and pristine ecological areas define the San Juans and are critically important to the local community.

"We are very happy to have reached this important milestone," Tom Reeves said. "And look forward to working with our congressional delegation to pass the legislation."

An NCA designation could ensure that approximately 1,000 acres of BLM managed land would remain in a natural state and publicly accessible. Those lands currently lack a long-term comprehensive management plan.

The legislation has also drawn the support of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who, in April, visited the region to view the parcels proposed for protection, and to discuss the proposal with local stakeholders.

Following that tour, Salazar asked that the Bureau of Land Management coordinate with a committee of local groups to prepare for a transition in management.

"The San Juan Islands are home to unique cultural and natural resources and a great example of the types of land we want to conserve for the benefit of all Americans," Salazar said. "One of the goals of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative is to connect people to the beauty and richness of our public lands and ensure we protect places like the San Juan Islands for generations to come. This legislation is an important step in the ongoing dialogue with our partners in the Northwest as our nation develops a 21st century conservation agenda."