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Campaign to protect precious lands in San Juan Islands

Courtesy of San Juan Islands National Conservation Area
A grassroots campaign of local conservation groups is hoping to get federally owned land in the San Juans declared a National Conservation Area.

The San Juan Islands are known for pristine natural beauty that includes a national wildlife refuge and several remote state parks.  

But they also contain about 1,000 acres of federally owned land that has been largely forgotten by authorities. Some islanders fear it might be sold off to developers.

A grassroots campaign is seeking a new kind of federal protection to ensure their future.

The thousand acres include popular shoreline areas on well-known islands such as Lopez and Stuart – as well as dozens of tiny islands, rocks and reefs scattered throughout San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties.

Together, they make up an area three times as large as the wildlife refuge they’re near. They belong to the federal Bureau of Land Management, but have the lowest priority, says ecologist Russel Barsh.

“These are the lands that never got assigned to a particular purpose, which may be a good thing , because they were left alone, but it’s also meant that no one’s been really looking after them. And in many cases nobody’s ever really officially visited them.”

Barsh’s non-profit has been surveying the land and has found it is home to many listed and endangered species of plants and animals. He says they're jewels that got put into the corner of the attic and forgotten a generation ago, when the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1976.

Barsh is part of a committee of islanders that came together a year and a half ago and is striving to get a new designation for the land – as a National Conservation Area. He says that would ensure the land is properly managed, remains in its natural state and can’t be sold off or developed.

“Some security – some long-term security. If they’re just surplus lands they could conceivably be re-designated or even disposed of.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar toured the land this spring. Now, Senator Maria Cantwell and Congressman Rick Larsen are working on legislation.  They hope to introduce it this fall. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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