Letter from Adrienne Adams to Land Bank

To: SJC Land Bank Board of Commissioners
From: Adrienne Adams, Lopez Island
Re: Proposed public access to Lopez westside beach, a.k.a Clure Property

Introduction

I have lived on Lopez Island for thirty years. Since the summer of 2013, my husband and I have lived in a rental home on Ivy Lane. This property has deeded access to the beach through the Clure property easement, and we frequently go to this beach. Over the past 3 1/2 years I have spent many hours observing this beach and nearshore environment.

I am a strong supporter of public lands and public access. In 2007 I co-founded the Friends of Lopez Hill and have been working with that group towards permanent protection for Lopez Hill. I understand the necessity of public access in building community support for conservation efforts, but it is my opinion—based on much experience and observation—that this proposal presents a real possibility for an unacceptable sacrifice of natural and ecological values for what is essentially redundant public access.

The Clure proposal’s single mention of the conservation value of this parcel refers to the upland forest, not the beach or tidelands. In fact, the proposal could pose numerous threats to the nearshore habitat and its resident wildlife. This acquisition proposal, as written, is strictly for the purpose of providing recreational access to tidelands that are public, and are thus already permanently protected. The Clure proposal provides no additional protection for these public lands. There is abundant public access to the shoreline on Lopez Island: Shark Reef Sanctuary; Otis Perkins Day Park; Fisherman Bay Preserves; Upright Channel State Park; Odlin County Park; Upright Head Preserve; Iceberg Point and Point Colville; Agate Beach; Watmough Bay; Spencer Spit, and more provide ample public access and recreation opportunities.

Furthermore, according to my personal correspondence with Lincoln, the Land Bank has not conducted any biological inventories or ecological assessments in advance of proposing to open this shoreline to increased public access. Without an initial baseline assessment of the existing ecology, it would be impossible to adequately identify potential impacts before the commitment is made to purchase this easement. This omission to document potential impacts of public access on a sensitive shoreline seems an abrogation of the Land Bank’s Stewardship mission.

Beach habitats

The half-mile long bight between Shark Reef and the artificial breakwater below the Trelease property contain extensive eelgrass beds and pocket mudflats. In summer, there are large patches of seasonal sand dunes with lush growth of dune grass and forbs. As the bight is somewhat sheltered from tidal action, there is an abundance of large logs at the winter high tide line. Smaller driftwood accumulates slowly from spring to fall.

When winter high tides sweep through, most of the small driftwood is pushed up to join the large logs or is swept away. Most of the sandy pockets wash out and the dune grass and forbs die back. Storm tides extend nearly to the base of the bluffs.

There are extensive feeder bluffs along this beach. The bluffs below the Wrolstad/Bailey residences are bare of vegetation and are eroding rapidly (see Public Safety, below).
In summer, low tides expose extensive tide flats landward of Shark Reef. These tidelands are covered in lush growth of seaweeds and are home to innumerable invertebrates.
Both seaweeds and eelgrass are very vulnerable to trampling, and provide crucial foraging areas for juvenile fish and invertebrates. A local scientist has confirmed that these eelgrass beds are potential herring spawning habitat.

Mammals

Harbor seals: Harbor seals utilize Shark Reef for haul-out. I have observed as many as 60 adult seals and pups on the reef during the spring and early summer. At low tide, it is possible to walk out on the exposed shallows reef and get close enough to the reef to spook the seals into the water. Has the Land Bank determined that the distance between the reef and the shore at low tide is farther the federally-mandated 150 foot limit of contact with seals?

River otters: I have observed two families of otters foraging directly offshore (one to the south and one to the north) of the access point. These otters den directly off of the beach and I see them nearly daily during early and midsummer, when the kits are young and staying close to shore.

Birds

I have personally observed the following birds utilizing cavities in the feeder bluff below the Wrolstad/Bailey residences: Pigeon guillemots, kingfishers, and rough-winged swallows. I have confirmed sighting at least two active swallow nests, and have observed pigeon guillemots making numerous landward flights: these sea-to-shore flights are a strong indication that there are active nests in the bank. Pigeon guillemots are a species of Moderate Conservation Concern.

Oystercatchers forage along the beach. They are shy birds and are easily disturbed.
In winter, one or two flocks of 6-8 harlequin ducks forage up and down the beach. They seem to prefer to forage right at the shoreline—usually within 10 feet of the shore. They are easily disturbed while foraging. The harlequins also haul out on any of several large rocks right at the shoreline.
Further offshore, the bight is used by flocks of common mergansers and buffleheads. Pacific loons forage further out and are a fairly common sight in winter.

Management

Management of this access would undoubtedly be challenging. It is a long beach 1/3 of a mile from the public road. The beach dunes and driftwood would certainly be an attractive temptation for fires and camping. The public tidelands end at the mean high tide line, which means that the dunes and large beach logs are primarily located on private land; many beach-goers will actually be trespassing on private land. Many residents along the beach use paths or steps to access the beach and store their kayaks or dinghies close to the beach, and landowners may have concerns over this increased potential for trespassing.
Litter and human and animal waste will likely increase as a result of increased public use.

Accessibility

The Clure proposal states “There is an existing cleared utility easement…It should be relatively easy to provide access for people with limited mobility…” The existing access road is quite steep, with grades exceeding 20%. Guidelines for ADA trails specify that accessible trail grades may not exceed 5% over long runs, and 8% over shorter ones. I have three friends who can walk but are mobility-limited, and the existing road is much too steep for them to use. Extensive re-grading of the access road would likely be required to bring it up to ADA standards.

Public Safety

Emergency response: The proposed public access point is approximately 1/3 mile from Shark Reef Road. The beach is backed by a high bank and is hard to see from nearby residences. First Responder access to remote parts of the beach are likely to be difficult and slow.

Hazardous bluffs: The bluff below the Wrolstad/Bailey residences is highly unstable: I have witnessed two major slides from the bank, one in the winter of 2015 and one the winter of 2016. Hazard bluffs are more likely to fail during winter storms but smaller slides are common year-round.

Wildfire: The beach is well provided with large amounts of driftwood, and one would assume that beach-goers would be inclined to build fires with this resource. The bank is heavily vegetated (except for the fast-eroding bluff directly below the Wrolstad/Bailey residences). Summer winds often blow strongly from the northwest and west directly onto the beach. All of these factors combine to present a high risk of wildfires—a small fire that got out of control could easily catch on the abundant grass and shrubs and “ladder” up the bluff, creating a serious threat to bluff-top forest and houses. Fortunately, last year’s illegal fire at Shark Reef Park was spotted from Cape San Juan and contained quickly, but we cannot be complacent about this danger. Firefighting efforts in this remote area would be extremely challenging.

Conclusion

The Clure acquisition proposal is strictly for the purpose of providing upland access to a fragile shoreline that is now unspoiled and that is already protected from development. There is no compelling conservation imperative for this acquisition; in fact, if implemented, this proposal will certainly have negative impacts on the ecological values of this environment. This proposal reduces a complex, fragile marine environment to mere scenery. I strongly oppose this acquisition and any further efforts towards obtaining upland access to this beach.

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