Islanders Question Plan to Dig in San Juan Islands Monument

Some Islanders Don’t Dig Federal Plan to Dig in San Juan Islands Monument

By John Ryan | May 24, 2017

The Trump administration has given an initial thumbs-up to a plan to dig holes throughout a meadow of rare wildflowers inside the San Juan Islands National Monument. It’s not part of any effort to eliminate the monument: It’s part of local tribes’ efforts to improve their diets and revive old traditions. The Trump administration released its list of 27 national monuments up for review — and possible elimination – earlier in May. The Hanford Reach National Monument along the Columbia River is on the list; the much smaller San Juan Islands National Monument is not. But just because land is in a national monument doesn’t mean it’s protected from harm.

Iceberg Point

The San Juans are mostly private land, with public parks in some of the islands’ most scenic locations. Iceberg Point, at the rocky, southern tip of Lopez Island, is one of the bigger parcels in the 1,000-acre San Juan Islands National Monument, designated in 2013 by President Obama. The Bureau of Land Management runs this southernmost outpost of the San Juan Islands. It has called Iceberg Point an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” since 1990.

This month, the agency said its proposal to dig 100 to 190, possibly more, holes in the meadows and forests at Iceberg Point and conduct a three-week field school there would have no significant impact. Archaeologist Patrick McCutcheon from Central Washington University and up to 25 students would do the digging in July during a three-week field school.

The plan has some islanders crying foul. “I’ve never thought of it as a place of research,” one Lopez resident said at a public meeting about the Iceberg Point proposal in May. “Isn’t Iceberg considered a reserve, to be protected from this kind of activity?” she asked.

‘Irreversible damage’

“The damage will be irreversible,” said biologist Russell Barsh with Kwiaht, a Lopez-based scientific nonprofit that has been studying the ecosystem of Iceberg Point for more than a decade. “What’s in that area could include the last remaining specimens of a number of wildflower species that we’ll never see again, at least not here in the islands,” Barsh said while standing in Kwiaht’s research garden in the middle of the island.

The Kwiaht garden grows native, edible plants. A recent open house at the garden served camas salsa, Indian-celery hummus and pickled salmonberry shoots. “The plants we focus on in our research garden grow wild at Iceberg Point,” Barsh said.

But Iceberg Point isn’t wild, exactly: It’s more like a very old, overgrown garden. “A pre-contact or pre-Columbian agricultural landscape in which Coast Salish people were gardening camas and other plants for the villages here on the south end of Lopez,” Barsh said.

Archaeological research can garner fierce opposition from tribes seeking respect for their ancestors and their cultures. The 8,000-year-old skeleton known as Kennewick Man was laid to rest by five eastern Washington tribes in February after a 20-year dispute.

McCutcheon’s Iceberg Point project, in contrast, has the support of at least four western Washington tribes. “We wholeheartedly support the science and the research approach he’s taking,” Leslie Eastwood, general manager of the Samish Nation in Anacortes, said, with the proviso that any artifacts found be left in place.

“They’re there for a reason, and let’s not disturb them,” she said. …

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