Proposed Monument plan threatens fragile ecosystems

Submitted by Kwiaht.

The federal government’s plan for managing the San Juan Islands National Monument will do more harm than good, according to an analysis by the nonprofit conservation laboratory Kwiaht. Kwiaht is probably best known on Orcas for its Indian Island Marine Health Observatory in Eastsound, one of seven place-based community science programs in San Juan County. Kwiaht also conducts research and educational activities in Moran State Park; San Juan Island National Historical Park; and Lopez Island Land Bank preserves.

Kwiaht scientists have monitored fragile native wildflower meadows on some Monument lands for nearly 20 years, and visited most of the dozens of small vegetated islands that are now part of the Monument repeatedly since 2010. “Based on thousands of hours of observations over many years,” says Kwiaht Director Russel Barsh, “we have no doubt that these fragile habitats are losing native lichens, mosses and flowering plants as a result of the combination of recreational activity, invasive plants and animals, and our changing climate.”

President Obama’s 2013 proclamation assembled the National Monument from scattered federally owned parcels administered by the Bureau of Land Management in San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties that include Indian Island as well as Blind, Freeman, Victim and Skull islands. “These lands,” the proclamation declares, “are a refuge of scientific and historic treasures and a classroom for generations of Americans.” BLM was given authority to “protect and restore” the biological resources on Monument lands.

Kwiaht’s analysis concludes that BLM’s recently released plan promotes tourism facilities at the expense of fragile habitats such as the wildflower meadows on Indian Island. Most of the small vegetated islands and rocks would be open to hikers and campers, with at most a marked trail and signs asking visitors not to venture off-trail. Since BLM lacks staff to make frequent visits to small islands, Kwiaht concludes that off-trail activity will increase, especially around campsites.

“We have little control over the weather, and most botanists and ecologists would agree that we can, at best, and with persistent effort, push back invasive species and increase the native component of our landscapes to a modest extent,” Barsh says “The impact that we are best able to control is human activity, but this plan welcomes more of it.”

Worse than being weak on managing visitors, the plan approves the use of burning and herbicides to “restore” historical landscapes. According to Kwiaht’s analysis, about a third of the Monument’s acreage—including Indian Island and several other small islands around Orcas—will be burned and sprayed repeatedly over 20 years to create “grasslands.” But as Kwiaht stresses, this approach was pursued by the National Park Service for 15 years at considerable expense, and the result, on the whole, has been more weeds and fewer native herbaceous plants. Burning down trees created more open areas, but they are dominated by Eurasian grasses. “Lawns,” Barsh says. “The problem is that the seeds of Eurasian weeds and grasses are everywhere in the islands and they are relatively fire-tolerant. Once you burn you have to spray, but the weeds blow in and re-establish so you have to burn and spray again and again.”

Kwiaht recommends a simpler, gentler and less costly strategy using island volunteers and youth to clear the most aggressive weeds by hand with minimal ground disturbance and fill any bare spots with native plant seeds and cuttings. “Coast Salish peoples didn’t just burn this land,” Barsh observes. “They gardened it. Selective logging, removing underbrush, small gardens.” He says that Kwiaht has repeatedly offered to weed and seed Indian Island.

“What BLM proposes is a vicious circle of burning and herbicides that will make the geese happy, and possibly contaminate the bay and its eelgrass, but probably not enhance the camas, chocolate lilies, sea blush, orchids, stonecrops and Lomatium that have been recovering there since we began managing the impact of visitors in 2010.”

Kwiaht’s complete analysis of the Monument plan can be found on Lopez Rocks and on Kwiaht’s website: