Some islanders don't dig federal plan to dig in San Juan Islands monument | KUOW News and Information

Some islanders don't dig federal plan to dig in San Juan Islands monument

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. 

Credit Bureau of Land Management

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.

Russel Barsh and a row of camas at the Kwiaht research garden on Lopez Island
Credit KUOW / John Ryan photo

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.

The tribes see the survey as a step toward getting BLM to allow restoration and harvest of what used to be one of their most important foods.

Camas meadow on Kiket Island on the Swinomish Reservation near Anacortes, Washington
Credit KUOW / John Ryan photo

Native carbs

Camas might be most familiar to people in Washington as a town just northeast of Portland.

It’s also a lily with striking blue flowers.

Camas bulbs look like small onions, but they’re starchy like potatoes. Slow roasted, they taste like baked pears.

Natives throughout the Northwest would cultivate the flowers and slow-cook the bulbs in underground pits for 24 hours or more to turn indigestible starches to sugar.

“That was really the basis of carbohydrates in our diet,” Eastwood said.

“Historically, our activities around Iceberg Point would really have been around camas harvest. That would have been a vast prairie of camas,” she said.

With the indigenous gardeners displaced by disease and colonization, the camas prairies, once carefully weeded and tended, were largely abandoned. In subsequent decades, camas and other wildflowers have been gradually losing out to trees, shrubs and weeds.

Tribes including the Samish and Lummi trace their roots back to the San Juan Islands and want to restore camas at Iceberg Point, in part, to bring healthier carbohydrates back to tribal diets. Eastwood said the inulin starch in plants like camas and cattails helped tribes avoid diabetes, unlike the white starches and sugars that replaced it.

“We have much higher rates of diabetes in our tribal populations than in the normal population,” Eastwood said.

Meadow death camas
Credit KUOW / John Ryan photo

Bulbs that kill

There is risk involved in eating wild foods, with one plant in particular posing a problem for camas eaters: a native but poisonous lookalike called death camas. Eating a handful of bulbs can kill you. (Even its scientific name is menacing: Toxicoscordion venenosum.)

Early gatherers would harvest camas in the spring, when its blue flowers were in bloom, to avoid confusing it with the cream-flowered death camas.

“It’s predominantly death camas that’s there right now,” Eastwood said of Iceberg Point.

BLM officials have said no restoration of edible camas or other species can be considered until the area is surveyed for rare plants and ancient artifacts.

Patrick McCutcheon of Central Washington University was awarded the contract to look for artifacts last fall in August. BLM officials said he was the only bidder for the $25,000 $20,000 contract.

McCutcheon declined to be interviewed for this story, but he explained his plan at a public meeting on Lopez last week.

“I’m trying to do archaeology and what’s best for the resources without doing harm to anyone or anything, kind of a prime directive thing,” he said.

His field-school students would walk in grid patterns around Iceberg Point, looking for artifacts, which could be something as subtle as a certain color of soil.

And they’d shovel out small test pits every 100 feet or so.

McCutcheon said botanical maps of the area show where to avoid trampling or digging up rare plants.

'You can't avoid them'

But Barsh said the rare plants and weeds grow all mixed together. By July, flowers are gone, the native plants are dried up, and it’s hard to see what’s what.

“If you can’t locate them, you can’t avoid them,” Barsh said. “If you dig up the native plants, it’s very hard to reestablish them. What will reestablish is the weeds.”

In addition to wildflowers, the southern end of Lopez Island supports at least 200 species of lichens, “and likely many more,” according to biologist Fred Rhoades of Western Washington University, with at least a dozen regarded as rare or endangered.

Many Iceberg Point lichens grow like tiny shrubs on the windswept coastal rocks. “These are particularly sensitive to foot traffic as they easily break up underfoot when dry,” Rhoades said in an email.  

“The wildflower meadows at Iceberg lose more each year from uncontrolled scrub and tree encroachment,” neighboring landowner and monument advisory committee member Tom Reeve said in an email. “Causing this slight amount of damage is a minuscule price to pay to enable BLM to at least have the option of doing meadow restoration.”

San Juan Islands monument manager Marcia deChadenèdes with BLM said conflicting views on Iceberg Point are a good thing.

“It’s been federal land for a long time, and it’s really wonderful that people have the investment in that and care and want to see it managed as it best can be,” she said.

DeChadenèdes said 80 percent of the volunteer hours put into taking care of the 400,000 acres of BLM lands in Washington state go toward the tiny fraction of those lands in the San Juan Islands National Monument.

The BLM is taking public comment on the Iceberg Point archaeological proposal through Saturday, May 27. 

Correction, 2:20 p.m., 5/30/2017: An earlier version of this story overstated the number of rare plant species at Iceberg Point, which has three plants listed by state or federal agencies as “sensitive” and seven considered “rare” by botanists.

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