Tuesday, May 3, 2011

National Conservation Area and San Juan Islands

Ken Salazar, the head of the U.S Department of Interior, visited Anacortes last week to hear more about a proposal to designate Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in the San Juan Islands. The BLM controls huge swaths of land in the Great Basin and desert areas of California. In Washington State the BLM has approximately 450,000 acres with only approximately 1,000 acres in western Washington.

A group of San Juan Island leaders have been working toward having the BLM lands in the San Juans designated as a National Conservation Area (NCA). The San Juan County Council passed a resolution of support with a unanimous vote. The properties in San Juan County are described HERE and are scattered around the San Juan Islands. The sites include small islands, points, light house sites or former light house sites that have remained owned by the U.S. government. All together approximately 1,000 acres encompassing 60 separate sites. The largest island is Patos Island and a fair bit of the southern end of Lopez Island is controlled by the BLM. The designation would be Washington State's first NCA.

The designation would allow for local input on how the lands would be managed for conservation purposes. Given that the BLM regional office is in Spokane, local involvement may provide efficiency in managing the lands. Mr. Salazar made a point of commenting on Washington State's commitment to land conservation. Local land conservation in the San Juans would likely provide the partnerships needed to develop a NCA from the San Juan BLM lands. There already is significant cooperation in management of these lands but local volunteer groups as well as Washington State. For example, a volunteer group has taken care of the light house on Patos Island and Washington State Parks operates a campground on the island.

Another significant motivation articulated in letters to the BLM, and congress by proponents and the San Juan County Council is the risk that at some future date the land would be sold. Scenic headlands, an entire island (Patos) and the land at the southern end of Lopez Island would be very desirable real estate and the capacity of local county government or land trusts to buy the land would be a challenge. San Juan County went through a similar process when the Washington State Department of Natural Resources decided for efficiency to divest from trust lands they managed within the San Juan Islands. With the regional BLM office  located in Spokane, so few BLM lands in western Washington and the occasional calls from leaders in Washington DC to sell public lands, the concern over management and possible selling of BLM land by San Juan leaders is real.

A few years ago the BLM withdrew 276 acres of BLM land in western Washington from potential mining. The withdrawal is to last 20 years and would then need to be renewed. Hence, besides sale of the land outright, some parcels could at some future date be subject to mining. Perhaps this scenario is unlikely given the sensitive nature of the locations, but NCA designation would provide long term clarity to the status of this properties. 
The withdrawal of BLM land from mining included three parcels that are in the island area but that are outside of San Juan County. Lummi Rocks, a set of rocky islands off the west shore of Lummi Island, the very southern tip of Lummi Island (Carter Point) as well as Chuckanut Rock are BLM land in Whatcom County. Perhaps it would make sense to include these sites within the NCA designation as well.

No comments: