A new report points to the progress the residents of the San Juan Islands have made in ecosystem protection efforts – and how those efforts can be a model for the restoration of the entire Puget Sound ecosystem.
But it also shows that shoreline alterations are occurring in some of the most ecologically sensitive areas of the islands, putting critical habitat at risk. And it makes clear that land-use incentives aren’t well designed to help most property owners, and environmental protection programs at times are in conflict and create confusion for those trying to do the right thing.
The preliminary report, “An Assessment of Ecosystem Protection: What’s Working, What’s Not,” is a product of the San Juan Initiative, a public-private partnership to improve ecosystem protection in the San Juan Islands.
“The San Juan Islands boast the most intact ecosystem in all of Puget Sound,” San Juan County Councilman Kevin Ranker said. “Property owners have done an excellent job of stewarding the land. But that doesn’t make the islands immune to the pressures of growth.
“The San Juan Initiative aims to ensure that as we grow, we have secured the things that are functioning – now and into the future. This report sheds light on what we are doing, and what we need to change, to achieve that.”
The report looks at four representative case studies: a nine-mile stretch of shoreline on each of the islands of San Juan, Orcas, Stuart and Lopez.
Key findings include:
• Shorelines relatively undisturbed. Shoreline armoring, which includes the placement of bulkheads, rocks or other structures to prevent land erosion, affects 30 percent of the shoreline around Puget Sound. Despite an increase in population and use of the islands, only 12 percent of the shoreline in the San Juan case studies has been armored.
• Areas with greatest impact on ecosystem being altered. While a small amount of shoreline has been altered compared to the rest of Puget Sound, some of the most sensitive areas in the San Juans, including feeder bluffs and pocket beaches, are being armored disproportionately. For example, of the 4.5 miles of feeder bluffs in the study area, 30 percent have been armored – interrupting important shoreline processes that support forage fish-spawning habitat, among other things.
• Well-intentioned regulations/incentives aren’t working in San Juans. Many shoreline property owners and building trade professionals feel overburdened and discouraged by regulatory processes, and not confident that compliance will lead to meaningful results, for them or the environment. For example, one island resident recalls a client required to maintain a 50-foot buffer between his house and the shoreline; another agency required him to cut down half of the trees in that buffer to install stormwater protection.
• And while incentive programs exist that reward property owners for good stewardship, they are used mostly on large lots. But the bulk of the lots in the case study had less than 200 feet of shoreline. (By comparison, conservation easements occurred on lots with an average of 1,300 feet of shoreline.)
The goal of the San Juan Initiative is to improve ecosystem protection in San Juan County so it supports the prosperity of the San Juan community and builds local capacity for ecosystem protection. It is a project of the San Juan County Council, the Surfrider Foundation and the Puget Sound Partnership.
For more information about upcoming San Juan Initiative meetings, and to review the report, go to www.sanjuaninitiative.org/meetings.html.