San Juan citizens team with state, federal agencies to improve island ecosystems

  • Thu Jun 5th, 2008 10:48pm
  • News

Bruce Wiscomb

tMore islanders’ input sought in June

From the fate of the lowly sea cucumber to the disenfranchisement of the next generation from their natural heritage, the San Juan Initiative is hearing it all, but the local-state-federal partnership is in a unique position to translate listening into a sea change, both for the San Juan Islands and for the nation.

The San Juan Initiative has stated that “there is no single group responsible for ensuring the success of all current programs. No one has evaluated the combined effectiveness of the many efforts. There are gaps in the mosaic of protection efforts, but no one has identified where they are or how to address them.”

And so the San Juan Initiative (a group of people, not an election ballot measure) has formed a core policy group of 15 islanders in partnership with regional, state and federal agencies to “improve ecosystem protection in San Juan County in a manner that supports the prosperity of the San Juan community, builds local capacity for ecosystem protection, and serves as a pilot for the rest of Puget Sound.”

The policy group includes Orcas Island residents Jonathan White, Orcas Island builder, Patty Miller, Orcas Island businesswoman and member of Eastsound Planning and Critical Areas Ordinance review committees, and Lisa Beyers, Director of OPAL Community Land Trust. Lopez Islanders serving are Tom Cowan, Past Director of the Northwest Straits Commission, and Nick Jones, commercial fisherman. Shaw Island is represented by Lynn Bahrych, Washington State Conservation Commissioner. San Juan Island residents Sam Buck, Jeri Ahrenius, Lincoln Borman, Peter Kilpatrick, Liz Illg and Ron Zee round out the Policy group. All were appointed by the County Council. Councilman Kevin Ranker co-chairs the San Juan Initiative (SJI) with Jonathan White.

Partner representatives from regional, state and federal management agencies include the Department of Ecology, The Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Park Service, NOAA Fisheries, Puget Sound Partnership, San Juan County, Surfrider Foundation, the Nature conservancy, Trust for Public Lands, Tulalip Tribes, US Fish and Wildlife and US Army Corps of Engineers.

A holistic look

White, says, “What drew me to the San Juan Initiative is a chance to look at the health of the ecosystem as a whole, rather than independent parts. That means we’re paying close attention to how the whole system is interconnected, including private and community rights and values. We’re interested in the underlying systems that create and support vitality.”

Jim Kramer, a consultant in Natural Resource Management and organizational development, is the Project Manager for the two-year pilot phase of the San Juan Initiative (SJI). Kramer worked closely with William Ruckleshaus, former director of the Environmental Protection Agency, to create the Shared Strategy for Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan in 1999, to restore salmon in Puget Sound after the recognition of salmon as an endangered species by the Federal government. This effort was the first time a federal agency allowed the community to write a plan for recovery, and has gone on to be a model for the rest of the country in restoring habitat.

Project coordinator is San Juan Island resident Amy Windrope, who is employed by Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency. Windrope says that the SJI mandate is how to support property owners who want to be good stewards – to do the right thing in environmental protection – and how to develop incentives and education as well as regulations to enable property owners to protect the local environment. “The SJI is unique in that it works directly with local land owners through the process to determine real problems and real solutions,” said Windrope. “Some problems are local, some are regional, and the SJ Initiative has linkage between them.”

The regional, state and federal agencies became involved in large part through the work Kramer has done with the salmon recovery plan. Kramer also credits Kevin Ranker, who sought to engage interested agencies to solve the problem through a local approach. Ranker’s “personal touch,” Kramer says, brought representatives such as Ruckleshaus, a part-time San Juan Island resident, to the Puget Sound Partnership.

After months of meetings, the SJI will now develop recommendations to all partners and to the County Council for broader solutions to continue and implement its work.

Shoreline study

The group decided to focus on shoreline habitat. Their “case studies” chose four areas of 34 miles (out of 414 miles) of ‘nearshore’ marine areas on San Juan, Lopez, Orcas and Stuart Islands.

To measure that effort, the SJI looked “on the ground [of these areas] to see what has changed on the shoreline,” and held a series of meetings with involved islanders, among them people in the business of development and current property owners “to build a link between the programs and changes that should happen,” said Windrope.

In establishing a baseline for their work, the SJI’s decision to study shorelines was based on the perception that it provides the most information to use a springboard, Windrope said.

The shoreline case studies provide effective measurement of habitat impact and property owner’s behavior in that they

• give a picture of what is happening in eelgrass, which is a prime nursery for marine habitat.

• measure the impacts of human shoreline development and compare them. For example, docks and mooring buoys over eelgrass have been found to create negative environmental impact, but new techniques for mooring buoys that have almost no impact on habitat. In contrast, the impact from visiting recreational boaters anchoring in eelgrass beds has not been examined. That’s probably more significant than docks, and it shows the danger of focusing on one aspect vs. regarding the impact of other issues, Kramer said.

• communicate with the most-affected property owners. The connection between the health of the habitat and property owners’ development, creates a “profound linkage” in that the solution brings two needs to a mutually-beneficial solution rather than pitting one interest against another, said Kramer. “The situation may seem adversarial, but the real solution is win-win.”

An example of such linkage is beach erosion, and the construction of bulkheads, or “armoring.” Feeder bluffs are eroding banks that feed the beach with gravel and sand, providing source material for the beach habitat below. Examples of feeder bluffs are the embankments at Ship Bay on the eastern shore of East Sound, and the bluffs just east of the ferry terminal at Orcas Landing.

The problem of beachhead erosion is often worsened by a nearby property owner’s “solution” of building a bulkhead. The installation of bulkheads results in the shore dropping and exacerbating erosion and in the diminishment of beach habitat; both property owners and the environment are negatively impacted by the traditional solution. In the case study areas of the San Juan Islands, 4.5 miles of bluffs were studied, and while the amount of bulkheads in San Juan county is “only” 12 percent, it is disconcerting that most of the armoring is done in sensitive areas, said Kramer.

Designs have been developed for less impact on armoring the beaches, using a “soft approach” that has already been utilized by Orcas Island property owners on North Beach.

What works, what doesn’t

Last week, White, Kramer and Windrope conducted a series of meetings with residents of San Juan, Lopez and Orcas Islands. About 50 people attended the May 29 Eastsound meeting, where the SJI leaders talked with people in the building trades, including Realtors and architects, to discuss their work, and to “begin a conversation of what works and what doesn’t for both the property owners and the environment,” said Kramer.

Windrope reported back from previous meetings with shoreline property owners who said that they wanted water views, shoreline protection, the ability to harvest ocean life, access to boats andthe water, the retention of vegetation and protection from erosion.

They SJI reps got a collective earful of complaints about the County Development and Planning Department (CDPD) and the conflicting opinions that come from that department, especially with regard to stormwater regulations. The permitting process was also a target of the group’s complaints

Permit Consultant Teri Williams said that thousands of dollars had been wasted by her clients because, “in the stormwater mess, the County couldn’t decide what was needed. San Juan County has been adopting regulations that make sense in Seattle or Everett but don’t make sense here,” she said.

Kramer, who wrote the Manual for Stormwater Management for King County, offered that he could convey the message that a different manual for rural areas needs to be applied to places such as the San Juan Islands to the Director of the State Department of Ecology.

John Evans, Director of the San Juan Builders Association, said that the regulations have caused more harm than benefit, make housing more unaffordable, use limited resources where no good is being done, and that historically, islanders have done a good job at protecting the environment.

Evans asked the SJI group to “use their influence at the State level to prevent the county from taking protective custody when they have no ability to do so. People have just plain had enough.”

Mark Padbury, cabinetmaker and teacher, warned of “the erosion of the community – our culture will be centered around wealthy people and restaurants.

“If we’re the ‘movers and shakers,’ then it’s critical people understand we’ve got to take care of the people coming up.”

His sentiments were echoed by Orcas builder Kaj Enderlein who said that for children to care about the environment, they have to experience the environment, and with most shoreline access denied by private ownership, many children are disenfranchised. “Working class people who live inland have no legal access to shoreline,” he said.

Using government resources

Kramer addressed permitting as an example of the dual challenge facing the SJI, “How can we manage to be both more efficient and more effective?”

Permitting often involves review by four different agencies of exactly the same material “A lot of resources are duplicated in processing – those resources could be freed up to provide technical assistance to property owners,” Kramer said.

Worse, those agencies frequently give conflicting directives. Or the regulations are not enforced. Windrope gave the example of nearly 200 San Juan County waterfront parcels having bulkheads on them, but being able to locate only 11 permits for them.

Property owners don’t have easy access to technological information, so it’s not obvious what they can do and what needs to be fixed, she said. To that end, one solution considered by the SJI is a database, similar to the County Assessor’s database online ( “parcel search”), where users could access searchable information about natural resources for the purposes of planning and developing their property. “People want consistent answers and good information,” said Windrope.

Windrope said, “We can’t solve the problem parcel by parcel; it requires working on a broader scale.”

An example of where a broader scale has been applied is at Birch Bay in Whatcom County. Property owners had experienced significant beachfront erosion, and the county hired a consultant who designed an approach for whole area that was approved by the State Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It illustrates the need to work on more than an individualized approach and why partnership is important to coordinate efforts,” said Windrope.

The Orcas Island case study was on the east side of West Sound. At the meeting of property owners in West Sound on May 29, comments were focused on harvesting sea life in light of what seems like over-fishing in West Sound, and on the challenge of government agencies reluctant to cede their power.

The SJI had heard from people who lived on the shoreline and Windrope presented a summary of concerns they’d expressed previously. The gathering noted that concerns over the health of sea cucumbers and the problems of sea lions were not noted. When Windrope’s information indicated that the impact of harvesting was “improving,” most of the attendees vigorously disagreed. They described West Sound as “heavily overfished” and said that a lack of enforcement and tribal fishing were negatively impacting their harvests.


At several times during the meetings, Kramer stated that “It’s not just how effective are the regulation; but how effective are the education and incentive programs?”

Windrope said that the Initiative plans to look beyond regulatory “fixes” such as the Critical Areas Ordinance, so that people will know “what they can do, not just what they’re prohibited from doing.”

He added, “Land owners want to do the right thing, and while most shoreline incentives don’t apply to small property owners, the regulations do apply. It is imperative to facilitate [good practices] so people have clear information about better stewardship, rather than being badgered.”

Kramer points to County incentive programs already in existence, such as easements through the Land Bank and San Juan Preservation Trust, and reduction of property tax burdens through the Open Space program. That tax reduction program is not a huge reduction but the fact of government recognition of good stewardship was a huge incentive, Kramer said, “The response was extraordinary.”

White said later, “As builders, we’re often the first exposure new property owners have to island life. We inform property owners on how we steward the land.” He warns against being lulled by the relative state of health of San Juan waters: “Autopsies show that our Orcas have the highest toxicity level of any other animal in the world. When an Orca dies, it’s considered a federal hazardous waste site.

“The perception we’re all up against is ‘everything’s fine,’ but we’re facing serious issues.”

Future meetings

A general public meeting will be held on June 7 from 4 to 6 p.m. on Orcas Island, at the Senior Center. A June 14 meeting is scheduled for Lopez Island, and a June 27 meeting will be held at the Friday Harbor Senior Center.

Kramer said that they plan to present the issues that have been aired at the meetings and focus on arriving at solutions with public input. He asked the West Sound audience, “We hope to motivate you to work with us to speak up when we say, ‘Now’s the time.’”

For more information about the May 29 meetings in Eastsound and West Sound, go to