Q: Why did you make this website?
A: We are very concerned about the proposal to throw open the last wild beach on Lopez Island, and we created this site as a way to inform the public, in detail, about those concerns.
Q: Why “save” Lopez Shoreline? Won’t the new Preserve do that?
A: The tidelands are already public, and don’t need to be “preserved.” Quite the opposite: this proposal will expose a two-mile stretch of premiere wildlife habitat to a significant increase in human activity. This shoreline has been publicly accessible only by boat and a few neighbors for many decades and is minimally disturbed.
Ironically, the “Preserve Lopez Shoreline” proposal describes a “nearly pristine beach,” ignoring the fact that the beach will hardly be “pristine” once it is open to the public!
Q: Are you opposed to public beach access on Lopez Island?
A: Not at all! We have many wonderful beach parks on Lopez, and we are happy to share these with our visitors. However, we recognize that public access involves trade-offs, one of which is that many species of wildlife cannot tolerate high levels of human disturbance. Because this beach sees so little human use, it is a prime area for breeding, nesting, and raising young, and many of these species are quite sensitive to human disturbance.
Q: Don’t we need more beach access on Lopez Island?
A: There are over a dozen beach access parks and preserves on Lopez Island. We wonder if “need” is being confused with “want.” We think that the benefits to the public must be carefully weighed against the potential impacts to the neighborhood and the shoreline ecology, and that these impacts must be carefully studied before a commitment is made to create a new public park. We think it would be an abrogation of the public trust to allow access without first understanding the full impacts of that access on the neighborhood and the fragile shoreline.
Q: Isn’t this about “Locals vs. Tourists?
A: Absolutely not. We are simply stating the truth: that all of our public beaches are tourist attractions. No one is proposing to put up a “locals only” sign—that would be pointless and unfair, not to mention illegal.
Q: In other countries, people can walk wherever they want. Shouldn’t Lopez be like that?
A: The “Freedom to Roam” is encoded by law in Great Britain, and practiced in many European countries. However, the Freedom to Roam concept does not apply to land near homes, gardens, or cultivated fields, only to undeveloped land. Europe’s freedom to roam tradition has its roots in the historical conversion of common lands to private holdings by the upper classes.
The United States has a very different history of private land ownership than Europe. Private property rights are very strong in the U.S., and everyone who owns land enjoys the protection of those rights. On public property, government agencies have the authority to restrict or limit the right to roam, and private property owners can restrict access on and through their property.
Q: Shouldn’t all the beaches be public? In other states, people can’t own the beach.
A: Washington State is unique in that private ownership of tidelands is allowed. When the Washington state constitution was adopted in 1889, the state asserted ownership of the beds and shores of navigable waters up to and including the line of “ordinary” (mean) high water. In 1890 the legislature authorized the sale of public tidelands to private individuals, most commonly to the owners of the adjacent uplands. This was done to guarantee the upland owners could have access to tidelands and develop them for things like oyster cultivation. The tidelands were seen as a source of economic development for the new State. During the ensuing years, approximately 60% of Washington’s state owned inland beaches were sold before the practice was discontinued in 1971. ALL Pacific Ocean beaches are public.
The proposed access will not affect current ownership of the beach or tidelands. The tidelands are public up to Mean High Water, and the land above that is privately owned. This situation is itself very problematic, because it’s difficult to determine exactly where public tideland ends and private upland begins, and at high tide all the exposed beach on either side of the approximately 200 feet of what is now the Clure property is private. It’s inevitable that this “preserve” will enable substantial trespassing on private beach lands.
Q: What about the Public Trust Doctrine?
A: The “Public Trust Doctrine” states that the public has the right to access all tidelands (land below water that it is “navigable”), but the Public Trust Doctrine is not a State law, and the Washington State Supreme Court has never expressly ruled that walking on private tidelands is legal. All privately held land above the Mean High Water is not “navigable,”and thus is not subject to the Public Trust Doctrine. For more discussion on beach walking and the Public Trust Doctrine, see the article: Beach Walking and the Public Trust Doctrine.
Q: Can’t we just put up signs to keep people from trespassing?
A: There are lots of problems with this idea. Signs are a visual blight upon an unspoiled landscape. The winter tides are high and powerful, and any signs that are installed on the beach will likely be washed away every winter, adding unsightly and dangerous trash to the shoreline. And let’s be realistic: people ignore signs all the time, especially when there’s something very attractive on the other side! Shark Reef County Park has a defined southern boundary, with a fence AND a sign, and yet there is a well-worn trail that indicates many people ignore the boundary and trespass on the adjacent private property.
Q: The Land Bank has said that they don’t advertise their preserves. Doesn’t this mean that not very many people will use the beach?
A: Hardly! As we know, the Internet and social media allow people to share all sorts of locations. There are numerous apps and websites designed specifically for people to share their favorite places. Word will get out.
The location of this proposed access is directly off of Shark Reef Road, right on the way to Shark Reef Park, the most popular tourist destination beyond Lopez Village. Anyone driving or biking toward Shark Reef will see this destination. Since County Parks does not count its visitors, we are uncertain exactly how many people visit Shark Reef every summer—but locals know that it is packed every weekend from late Spring well into Fall.
According to data collected by the BLM (the agency that manages the new San Juan Islands National Monument), over 18,000 people visited Watmough Bay last year, and over 17,000 visited Iceberg Point. If even a portion of this number of visitors come to the beach, it will represent an enormous impact.
Q: This beach is two miles long, won’t the impacts be spread out over a large area?
A: Anyone who has been to a beach that has a single access point can see a common pattern: the highest concentration of people is nearest the access point, and density declines as you go farther away from this point. So the greatest impacts will be adjacent to the access point, rather than being evenly spread out over a wide area. The proposed access point is immediately adjacent to the most sensitive and problematic areas of the beach: the swiftly-eroding hazard bluffs, the extensive seaweed beds, and Shark Reef Rocks, a National Wildlife Refuge. Shark Reef Rocks are a critical haul-out area for harbor seals, and at low tide people can get close enough to the rocks to scare and even harass the seals and their pups.
Q: Doesn’t this proposal also preserve the upland forest, not just the beach?
A: The Clure proposal does not attach any special conservation values to the forested uplands; it simply notes typical second-growth forest characteristics. The Clure parcels fall under the regulations of the Critical Area Ordinance, meaning that any development must take place inland of the 200 foot Shoreline buffer zone; the CAO strictly regulates clearing, runoff and other development activities. It is not within the Land Bank’s mission to purchase ordinary properties simply to prevent their development. “In order to maintain private ownership and maximize the use of available funds, the land bank commission (LBC) shall first consider conservation easements or other nonfee interests as the method to achieve the purpose(s) of the proposed acquisition.” (San Juan County Code 2.120.010, Sec. B)
Q: Won’t a Management Plan solve all these problems?
A: A comprehensive management plan and enforceable regulations can help to prevent conflicts and damage, but rules alone cannot prevent impacts. Degraded areas can be restored to something approximating the undisturbed state, if the impact is recognized early enough to allow natural regeneration or recolonization of the native flora and fauna. But isn’t it better to prevent damage or degradation in the first place, rather than have to clean up a mess later?
This proposed preserve poses many management challenges. The beaches at Otis Perkins and Fisherman Bay Preserves are very visible to the public: in contrast, the westside beach is very private and secluded. The houses are at the top of a high, steep bluff, and most neighbors cannot see the beach from their houses. That means that there are no “eyes on the street” to dissuade bad behavior. If a party gets out of hand, or an illegal fire is started, it will be up to the neighbors to call 911.
Many of the species that use this beach area for nesting or foraging are quite shy and easily disturbed by human presence. Unleashed dogs are inclined to chase and harass wildlife. Wildlife that is displaced by all this activity will have to find new places to live. Relocating wildlife is challenging: good habitat is often already at carrying capacity, and introduced wildlife may not be able to find enough food or nesting habitat to survive. That’s why the concept of “no net loss” is so important: if good habitat is destroyed in one area, the only way that displaced wildlife has a chance is that if new suitable habitat is established nearby. We know of no such plans to create new habitat for wildlife that will be displaced by this proposed access.
Last but not least, the Land Bank has expressed concerns that their stewardship resources are already stretched thin. Does the Land Bank really have adequate resources to manage an extensive new preserve? The agenda for October’s Land Bank retreat read: “As the Land Bank has acquired more and different types of properties our stewardship obligations have grown and diversified. Though our stewardship staff has increased as well (from 2 FTEs in 2006 to 4.8 FTEs in 2017), there is a sense that we are struggling to keep up, and that more is on the horizon. New recreational projects and expansion of restoration opportunities will require additional capacity….” How much will this “additional capacity” cost the citizens of San Juan County?