Obama will create national monument in San Juans

Source: Seattle PI

Seattle PI - Joel Connelly

President Obama on Monday will create a 955-acre national monument in Washington’s scenic San Juan Islands, using his authority under the same 1906 law deployed by President Theodore Roosevelt to begin preservation of this state’s Olympic Mountains and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

The monument was championed by Western Washington lawmakers after legislation to create a National Conservation Area stalled in the Republican-controlled House Natural Resources Committee.  Its chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has not even bothered to hold a hearing on the proposal.

“Some of the most pristine places in the entire world are in the San Juan Islands.  The fact that they could be sold and developed in the future made us want to protect them now,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.  “In this case, the uniqueness influenced the White House that the opportunity to protect was in the interests of the nation.”

The lands, scattered through the San Juans, are already federally owned under auspices of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.  The BLM will continue to manage the new monument, a White House spokesperson indicated Thursday night.

The monument will include such places as secluded Watmough Bay on Lopez Island, the Turn Point lighthouse on Stuart Island — a renowned sunset, orca and porpoise watching spot –  and Patos Island, most northerly and remote of the San Juans.

“Patos is amazing; it has these tiny little pocket beaches, and eagles overhead,” said state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, whose district includes the San Juans. He loves another spot in the monument, Iceberg Point on Lopez Island.  “It is on the west side, gets these rushing winds in the winter.  In the spring it is covered with wildflowers,” Ranker said.

Both federal, state and local officials have backed the monument not just to protect unspoiled places in the San Juan archipelago, but for economic reasons.  Preservation is no longer “locking up” land, but rather welcoming visitors.  “A national monument increases recreation dramatically,” Ranker said.

Obama will be designating four monuments on Monday.  The others are the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland, the First State National Monument in Delaware and the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico.

He is deploying the Antiquities Act:  The 106-year-old law still has its enemies on the right — Hastings has been critical — but has been used by presidents to protect such “crown jewels” of America as Glacier Bay and Katmai in Alaska, Devils Tower in Wyoming, Death Valley in California,  the Yampa and Green River canyons in Colorado  and the Upper Missouri Breaks in Montana.

Several of the greatest areas — e.g. the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Glacier Bay, Katmai la — were later made national parks by Congress.  An Olympic National Monument was designated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.  The national park came into being under President Franklin Roosevelt three decades later.

The protection of the BLM lands in the San Juans has been championed, in particular, by outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash.

Cantwell and Larsen have prodded the White House for months to act, with legislation not likely to get the time of day in the House.

They sought a National Conservation Area status, but could not get movement in the House.

“I think the prospect of anything moving through Congress is uncertain, even important bills,” Cantwell said by explanation.  She predicted that Northwesterners will “be thanking Ken (Salazar) for a very long time.”  Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., thanked Salazar for “incredible leadership” in pushing through the monument before he leaves the cabinet.

“San Juan Islanders have been shouting from the rooftops for years:  Protect these lands,” said Larsen.  “Well, the president heard our message loud and clear.”

The cause of preserving the BLM lands has achieved great local support.  At one point, a letter signed by 150 business owners in Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties argued the cause of preservation.

“This is a great idea and I’m glad the president is making the designation,” said Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville.  “I know about this place, having a home out there. People come there from all over the world.  The natural and historic quality of the islands is unsurpassed.”

There is already a federal presence in the islands.  The San Juan Island National Historic Park preserves the site of the 19th Century “Pig War,” when British and American forces faced off until the boundary between the United States and what would become Canada was determined.

One small chunk of the new monument adjoins the historical park on San Juan Island.

The most recent designation in Washington state came in 2000, when President Clinton created the Hanford Reach National Monument, preserving land along the last undammed stretch of Columbia River between Bonneville Dam and the Canadian border.  The monument also includes landmark (and well-named) Rattlesnake Mountain northwest of Richland.

Unlike Clinton, Obama has been sparing in his monument designations.  He did designate Fort Ord in California, and a Cesar Chavez National Monument in California, where the United Farm Workers of America leader lived and worked.  During the fall campaign, he protected an area around Colorado’s Chimney Rock.

The region’s conservationists will likely bring a new monument cause to Obama.  Ex-Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus wants a national monument to protect Idaho’s White Cloud mountains, whose crowning summit, 11,815-foot Castle Peak, is one of the great landmarks of the American West.