San Juan County government takes pride in its adoption of Leave No Trace principles, as does the San Juan Islands National Monument, which was in the news just last week for its commitment to promoting LNT to visitors. All of that is good. But self-congratulation must be followed by consistency in action.
There is little doubt in our minds that a team of up to 25 people working off-trail for three weeks at Iceberg Point will leave traces - trampling, disturbed soils, social trails - comparable to the impacts from off-trail activity by other visitors. If we do a little basic math, 25 people for 20 days is equivalent to 500 people walking around and picnicking off-trail this summer.
Over the past few years, Kwiaht has recorded visitor numbers and observed off-trail activity whenever we conduct trail-side plant surveys at Iceberg Point (at least once a month). Off-trail use has been higher than we would like, but certainly not over 500 per summer. Lopezians that have been concerned about the impact of greater visitor numbers on the landscape should consider this.
It would be conservative to say that the CWU field school will have an impact on the landscape at least equal to doubling the number of summer visitors that engage in off-trail hiking.
In 2015-2016, BLM staff and volunteers made a significant effort to block or otherwise obscure informal trails that cut through sensitive areas of the landscape. (We note that a number of informal trails that were slated for closure remain open and in use.) There is now an official route map posted at the access point that encourages visitors to stay on the trails indicated and stay off the lichens. This is commendable progress.
For consistency, however, BLM must not now authorize - and pay for - projects that involve group activities, off-trail, over a period of weeks, precisely in the areas that we all agreed in 2015 to close to visitors for the protection of the native landscape, under the authority of the 1990 ACEC Iceberg Point management plan.
We note that BLM has used "Cat-Ex" to bypass an environmental assessment; that no document shows exactly where facilities such as portapotties and a field laboratory will be located; that CWU has been vague about restoring disturbed soils (a public comment that students will water the pits after they are re-filled just doesn't cut it); and that core documents such as the actual contract have not yet been made public.
Kwiaht has obtained a copy of Patrick McCutcheon's original "field school" proposal (attached to this posting) - the proposal that BLM funded, and that Central Washington University approved in September 2016, seven months before BLM issued the "Categorical Exclusion" decision upon which Lopezians were invited to comment before May 27.
There are significant differences between the plan approved by BLM and CWU, and the "Cat-Ex" document. The original plan does not mention that Iceberg Point is an ACEC, part of a National Monument, or a culturally influenced wildflower meadow; nor does it address the protection of rare plants or lichens. It does not limit excavations to 190 shovel pits; and it says that all exposed rock will be scrutinized for petroglyphs.
We know that the Tribes were able to exact some concessions after this plan was approved by BLM and CWE: for example, the Tribes reportedly insisted that artifacts be re-buried on site. But the Tribes had seven months to review and comment, while BLM gave Lopez only two weeks, and is arguably playing the Tribes and islanders against each other.
We hope that BLM recognizes that its Leave No Trace Gold Standard designation will tarnish very quickly if it bypasses environmental review to fund and approve unnecessarily destructive university activities.
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