Taking Care of What’s Ours: BLM lands in SJC

Oak Island is located in West Sound off Orcas Island. - Contributed photo
Oak Island is located in West Sound off Orcas Island.
— image credit: Contributed photo

San Juan County includes hundreds of small islands, most of them too small and isolated to attract human settlements today. Coastal Salish people nonetheless used many of these small islands in the summer as camas gardens and dog corrals, the sea providing a natural fence to keep deer outside, and dogs inside.

Much of the ancient wealth of our islands—roasted camas and dog wool yarn—was produced on these tiny plantations in days when the sea posed little obstacle to cedar canoes with woven cattail-mat sails and seasoned sailors. Some 19th century settlers also their made homes on small islands, leaving timbers and traces of pottery on top of ashy Native shell middens.

Apart from their human history, San Juan County’s small islands have become a refuge for rare and unusual plants and seabirds. In late spring, scores of small islands are carpeted with our most striking native flowers: blue camas, delicate pink farewell-to-spring, chocolate lilies, bright orange Columbia lilies, red Indian paintbrush, deep indigo Menzies larkspur, and many others. Isolated by miles of water, populations of native flowers are genetically isolated and highly diverse. Indeed, a new species of paintbrush was discovered on small islands in 2007.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 31 small islands in San Juan County, including some that are large enough to be popular places for visitors, such as Victim, Blind, and Indian Islands. The Indian Island Marine Health Observatory, an Orcas-based volunteer program of Kwiáht and Beach Watchers, provides monitoring and public programming on Indian Island, and is developing a high school conservation corps with BLM to help maintain Indian Island for recreation and education. Plants and wildlife on all of our small islands face growing challenges, however.

Burgeoning populations of native deer and feral mouflon sheep swim to small islands, grazing out native plants and spreading non-native grasses. Canada geese, especially the growing number of year-round residents, also transport grasses and aggressively displace native seabirds. Rats have spread to many of our small islands, where they eat seabird eggs, native mollusks and other animals. Seeds of highly invasive plant species such as spurge laurel and English ivy have reached many small islands in the gut of birds and the shoes of humans, thriving at the expense of native species. Our gardens in the sea are at risk of becoming rat-infested lawns.

Reclassification of the BLM lands as a National Conservation Area (NCA) would be one way to increase resources to restore and maintain the beauty and diversity of these small islands for future generations. BLM scoping meetings will be held in early June to familiarize islanders with these special places and ask for local perspective on appropriate management activities.

This is the second of a series of articles highlighting significant landscapes owned by the BLM. Future articles will continue to explore the process and possibilities of a NCA designation.

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