Minimizing tourism impacts

There is a delicate balance between the economic benefits of island visitors and the impacts of increased crowds. The San Juan County Environmental Stewardship Department has been working on A Sustainable Tourism Management Plan to address that fine line and held several community meetings from April 28 through May 19 via Zoom to gain local feedback.

“We really want the plan to protect nature and cultural heritage,” Kendra Smith, Executive director of the San Juan County Environmental Stewardship Department, told attendees at the April 28 meeting. “We know there is a lot of commonality amongst the community as we have talked to a lot of residents.”

The plan has been in the works for several years. It would outline the shared community vision, goals, and implementation measures to drive sustainable tourism in the islands.

Part of phase one was surveying county residents and businesses by Doug Whittaker, Dan Shelby, and Bo Shelby of Confluence Research and Consulting, who have been contracted by the county. Once the survey was complete, Wittaker, Dan and Bo compiled a report of the survey in 2019. In it, they found very few residents think the islands “can handle more tourists” (6%), and 94% report the islands are at capacity (52%) or over capacity (42%) during the peak summer months. Similarly, few businesses (20%) say the islands can handle more tourists, and 79% report the islands are at (54%) or over (25%) capacity.

“I have a heartsick feeling the horses are already out of the barn,” Steve Ulvi, an attendee of the May 10 meeting said. He added that it will take strong statements by the county to really make a difference. Other attendees echoed his concern and called for some kind of limit on tourism. Suggestions included limits on ferry service and caps on the amount of lodging. The Washington State Ferry Service is part of the state transportation system, however, meaning prioritizing locals is legally not feasible.

After incorporating feedback from the April 28 meeting, the goals of the plan include: Protect, conserve and interconnect natural resources and open space for ecological and recreational benefits; adapt infrastructure to accommodate seasonal variation in use; expand access to bike trails and lanes, public transit and other mobility methods to ensure transportation is accessible and affordable for all; support a year-round thriving and diverse community with well-balanced investment and strategic promotion of island activities; expand local control and ownership of tourist activities; build resilience to climate change by reducing carbon footprint and preserve community well being through ensuring equity and maintaining the rural lifestyle.

Increasing public land may be one way to achieve some of the goals. Confluence Research and Consulting’s survey report found that compared to other counties in Washington, San Juan County has a scarcity of public lands (16% vs. 57% percent statewide). This includes San Juan Island National Historical Park (2,000 acres), Moran State Park (5,000 acres), scattered county parks, and recent acquisitions by Land Bank and other land trusts. This scarcity concentrates use and impacts, creates management challenges, and may limit the quality or amount of tourism that relies on this resource base.

Surveys indicate residents, businesses, and visitors recognize the scarcity of public lands, and 61% (residents) to 90% (visitors) support acquiring more. There is slightly more support for acquiring beaches and shorelands than mountain and forested areas.

Other suggestions included encouraging more activities during the shoulder season. May 10 meeting attendee Alison Longely suggested that gardening presentations and workshops could be scheduled in early spring, while food harvesting and preservation events could happen in the fall. This strategy could be a win-win economically and environmentally. Stretching tourism out throughout the year could create stable long-term jobs and could reduce impacts on wildlife. However, there is no guarantee encouraging visitors during the shoulder season would decrease visitors during the summer.

Encouraging good behavior around wildlife, such as giving whales space when boating, or more recently, photographing foxes without disturbing them, could be taught through fliers or signs as well as being modeled by locals.

“Often if people see everyone else is keeping their dogs on leashes, for example, they will leash their dog as well,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker explained to attendees that in his experience the most effective tourist management plans contained strong goals, policies and strategies. In order to achieve those, community members need to ask themselves what they are attempting to achieve.

“[the county] has done some of these things, but could do more. You could be pioneers,” Whittaker said.

Once the public meetings wrap up, all of the comments will be integrated into the draft plan, which is expected to reach its final form and be scheduled for public hearings in the spring of next year, according to the stewardship department’s website. To learn more and to become involved, visit