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Officials still looking at making local lands federally protected
by Clare DeLong
Special to the Journal
Absent an executive order from President Obama, legislation to designate federally managed land in the San Juan Islands as a National Conservation Area will continue to wend its way through Congress, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell says.
“We’re hoping we can move the legislation sometime in the next year,” Cantwell said at a Feb. 18 town hall meeting in Anacortes, “but as you can see, back in Washington [DC] everything is not moving as quickly as we would like.”
More than 100 citizens of San Juan and nearby counties turned out in torrential rain to participate in the meeting hosted by Sen. Cantwell and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, to discuss the proposal for turning roughly 1,000 acres designated to the Bureau of Land Management in San Juan County into a National Conservation Area.
It is the second time Salazar has visited the area in the past year, and he expressed optimism that the land may be redesignated as part of an initiative to place permanent protections on BLM-managed public lands in areas where there is strong local support. The San Juans are among 18 areas across the nation identified by the Department of the Interior for permanent protection.
Despite debate on the issue at the town hall, it appeared clear that attendees favored long-term protection for lands that, as State Sen. Kevin Ranker noted, at present have none.
Without a long-term management plan, the future of these areas is uncertain. Those supporting the measure cited Lopez Hill on Lopez Island, and Mitchell Hill on San Juan Island, which might have been sold to a developer by the Department of Natural Resources had local residents not intervened.
Legislation introduced by Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen last year (S. 1559 and H.R. 2912) is currently stalled in Congress, but citizens were told they could support the effort by writing letters to Congress or to the office of Secretary Salazar.
Officials said the president could use his power under the Antiquities Act to mandate the San Juan lands – deemed among the “crown jewels” of BLM managed public lands – a National Monument. Citizens could also support this action through letters and advocacy.
Without support, the land would continue to managed as it is now by co-operation between the BLM and the local community.
The terms National Conservation Area and National Monument are used interchangeably by the department, denoting only how they were put into law and not how they were managed. According to spokesmen for the BLM, the Islanders for a National Conservation Area, and Secretary Salazar, both avenues would allow ample opportunity for local involvement.
Some at the meeting opposed the action altogether. Several whose property abuts BLM land said they were concerned about the potential effects on their own land of increased visitors to newly protected public lands.
Ron Reimer, president of the Whatcom County chapter of the Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights, doubted that the government would keep the local community involved in land management if the legislation goes through. Reimer said federal protection “might be a good idea,” but believes control needs to say as close to the people who are the most effected by the land.
Once you have handed over management to the federal government, he said, “(you have) given the keys to someone else and are willing to be a passenger forevermore, no matter how appealing it sounds right now.”
Nick Teague, a Lopez island resident and the only permanent BLM representative in San Juan County, countered that citizen involvement would be mandated by law, and that he has “never worked in an area where folks are so passionate and engaged in the management of the land” as they are in San Juan County. There are more volunteer hours logged with the BLM here than the rest of the state combined, he said.
Teague said a management plan, which would be drafted by BLM officials and an advisory committee comprised of community members, would decide how best to “reduce and mitigate impact” from visitors.
Citizens at the meeting agreed that the land under consideration should remain “natural” and as close to untouched as is possible while still allowing public access, and that community involvement remains a priority.
Sally and Tom Reeve, who own land next to Iceberg Point on Lopez Island, one of the BLM properties affected by the proposed legislation, said it’s because of their proximity to the land, not in spite of it, that they have been active in pushing this legislation through.
“People find these lands enjoyable,” they said, adding that they hope to ensure that enjoyment will carry on for many generations.