Seeing Only What We Want to See

In the San Juan Update mailbag today we find this letter from Steve Ulvi…

This place, protectively moated by surging tidal waters from the continuous spreading rash of the I-5 corridor, is a prominent geography of hope. I suspect that this has been a place of promise from the first human footprints on the beach sand. A wag could also say “a mainland-dependent, vacation home and summer tourism servicing community, highly vulnerable to the massive shaking and slosh of the coming Big One”. Or even a big spike in diesel prices.

People often use terms like pristine, wild, natural, rich or abundant in describing these islands and waters. As if the inconvenient truths of history can somehow be swept away or ignored. The use of these descriptors, given piles of contrary factual information, is sadly indicative of an outlook distorted through the prisms of social amnesia, faith-based myths and scientific ignorance. The generational blinders of “shifting baseline syndrome” numb all but the alarmists among us.

This syndrome, now so obvious, was popularized as recently as the 1990s in describing generational perspectives of fishery managers believing that the start of their careers was the starting baseline for managing fish stocks, many in decline.  You can apply this crippling lack of perspective to almost anything in this era of drastic change. The most truthful bumper sticker for seekers of the good life in the West has always been “You shoulda been here 30 years ago!”

I have a nagging feeling that despite our happy talk, the opportunities for this county to attain long term community stability – a more diversified economy, balanced population demographics and protection of critical resources – is evaporating like a snowbank overpowered by the relentless intensity of the summer sun.

Donald Rumsfeld’s conundrum of “what we know we know” applied to our inertia in dealing with the ruination of ecological systems and festering social inequities is chilling. But regard for “what we don’t know we don’t know” by employing common sense precautionary principles, seems an uphill battle against moneyed interests. Selling out the future for profit and jobs now is our unspoken mantra.

Engaging in local issues is a welcome tonic in contrast to struggling with the overwhelming scope of regional and national issues where our voices of objection are hollow. Unfortunately, these larger external forces, magnified by the current sickening backslide of environmental protection measures for depleted common resources, will have outsized effects on the range of future opportunities here. Let’s start with salmon and Orcas.

As depressing as the larger picture is, the future of this unusual county is to some extent still ours to prescribe and protect. More so than most places because of our protective geography and extraordinary levels of informed citizen participation within a small, generally cohesive and progressive community. As Canadian scientist David Suzuki reminds us “Our future will not be determined by chance. It will be determined by choice”. Collective public choice.

So, by what process can we hope to preserve future opportunities while slowing the excesses of decades of gentrification, parceling out arable land and effectively squeezing out a functional middle class? Drum roll, or maybe more like a rim-shot, please! The 2018 County Comprehensive Plan Update! I know, the sound of one hand clapping in eager anticipation.

For sure this is wordy, tedious, butt-numbing public planning. More bloody meetings cutting into already busy lives. Dense planning jargon. Good ideas buried in the muck of conflicted possibilities. Paralysis by analysis. Dilbert cartoon panels, and so on.

But in stark contrast to the awful dysfunction of the national government, our county is managed by rational, apolitical, engaged commissioners and dedicated staff who share the strong sense of community of this vibrant place. This comprehensive plan update asks that we take measure of our immediate challenges and extrapolate them into the future with an eye on altering the arc of outcomes. Hopefully, we can realize just how ineffective head-nodding agreement is, without clear lines in the sand, that constrain the self-destructive momentum of the “Nantucket Effect” in order to describe a more sustainable future condition in 2036.

After agreeing that 19,400 plus people is the best middling guestimate of the county population twenty years out, multi-part “Community Visioning” feedback loops are next up. A new vision declaration should stand in stark contrast to 1997, when accelerating global climate change, was widely unrealized or poo-pooed as Ivory Tower, pointy-head alarmist speculation (except, it turns out, by Exxon Mobil senior scientists!).

We are far from immune from the deep socio-economic fractures that are surfacing in ugly counterpoint one after another. The sense that adults at the national table will prevail before catastrophe is unleashed is dwindling. There seems to be little patience or appetite for public debate and personal sacrifice to create the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The deep seated human tendency, the way we have rolled for nearly all of our 175,000 years as moderns, is to embrace self-serving tribalism as a coping mechanism in reaction to rapid change, fear and uncertainty.

Real change requires intentional participation and hard work no matter how good we think we have it compared to the “rest of the schmucks”. You can be sure that the “growth is always good so open the doors wide and we will sort everything else out later!” cheerleaders will participate in force, protecting the status quo trajectory and their own profit-taking from overblown summer tourism and rampant trophy home construction. What about defining a population carrying capacity or addressing the foundational issues of rural community sustainability? “Preserving rural character” is a bumper sticker sentiment, not the well-defined and measurable outcome it must be.

The talk around town and watering-hole commentary poses many good questions about the status quo and hopefully will energize the planning discussions.

Is it finally time to launch a massive public/private effort to build hundreds of affordable houses and rent-capped apartments now that we are in full-blown crisis mode?

How about OPALCO breaking free from reliance on the Bonneville Power Administration that has in effect “burned” billions of salmon to provide “inexpensive, clean power”, yet is highly susceptible to increasing summer temperatures and loss of critical winter snow pack?

Is it a bridge too far to aim to become one of the many 100% renewable power communities and use that energy conservation as an additional attractant to tourists since something will have to eventually replace the mostly absent Southern Resident Killer Whale pods?

A great number of public trails have been designed and constructed in the last decade. Most are relatively short segments within a parcel or two. Road walkers, farmers moving sheep to other pastures, horseback riders and local bicyclists feel unsafe in using our busy and narrow roads. Yet, these other uses are the very definition of “rural character”. How about more emphasis on non-motorized uses of our key routes (especially around population centers and designated urban growth areas) employing widening, lane striping, signage and turnouts that make multiple uses safer?

What about a small certified lumber mill to produce doug-fir dimensional lumber right here to meet some of our code-compliant wood frame construction needs?

Industrial agriculture is highly subsidized and rarely pays the externality costs of heavy water use, energy use, air and water pollutants, fertilizer production and the heavy carbon costs of truck transportation. Most of our goods come out here via an incredibly wasteful, 20th century system, take up daily ferry space getting here and back, employ relatively few people and are highly susceptible to disruption. Why not greater local subsidies or tax breaks for bona fide island farmers and ranchers in order to increase production and lower prices to consumers while tweaking the Land Bank model to greatly increase our acreage in active agricultural and forestry?

Why do we pay to transport organic wastes to the mainland instead of creating cheap compost here for local use in landscaping and agriculture?

Water is predictably becoming the most valuable commodity of all, even here in the soggy Pacific Northwest. How about far larger “rain garden” efforts around the large parking areas and other impermeable surfaces and concentrated effort to recharge our aquifers while incentivizing residential water catchment at a far larger scale?

Isn’t there any way to additionally tax vacation homes here, often obscene in size and resource consumption, instead of allowing rich owners to park some of their wealth here under low property taxes in unoccupied residences for future profit taking? Vacation rentals by owners?

Where does your mind wander as you sit in ferry lines thinking about somehow preserving the rare qualities of this place for future generations of regular folks, given the compounding socio-economic disruptions and the new normal of cascading climate change impacts?

Posted on September 13, 2017 at 5:47 am by

Categories: Community, Energy, Environment, Government, Letters


  1. Wow! Great letter. I attended the League of Women Voters program on Monday about the Comp. Plan. I was a resident for the first Comp Plan. Everyone needs to comment. The planners ARE listening. The League has a Youtube presentation on this meeting if you are interested

    Comment by Janet Wright on September 13, 2017 at 8:06 am
  2. You mention salmon and orcas. The Southern Residents are facing extinction. The Port of Vancouver (Canada) is launching a huge two-month study in Haro Strait to evaluate the impact of noise and disturbance on the SRKWs. Underwater noise prevents them from navigating, mating, communicating and locating available salmon. They undergo tremendous assault of noise and disturbance in their core critical habitat off the west side of SJI and appear to have forsaken their home waters. Let’s give them a protection zone to come home to. For those interested in what the Port of Vancouver is doing, go to: http://www.portvancouver/echo . For the incontrovertible research, go to:

    Comment by Janet Thomas on September 13, 2017 at 2:24 pm
  3. Janet

    Salmon and Orcas are cannon-fodder in the corporate taking of common resources. Historically, rapacious timber harvest and spring log runs and of course the scores of dams without fish ladders as required by State law. Then capture of Orcas for entertainment. Now pollution and heavy international shipping with nasty fish farms (the corporate answer for other corporations destroying wild salmon!). Damned dire.

    These are prime examples of the forces of destruction beyond our control. Unless you think of resolutions or letters of complaint by the County as effective measures. I would love to hear about how to connect the dots of our surrounding waters to our territorial legal reach, etc. I believe that WA is a “public trust doctrine” State regarding waters but don’t see that card played.
    Hence, my letter is a call to action for the Comp Plan update…issues within our jurisdiction and sway.

    Comment by Steve Ulvi on September 14, 2017 at 3:05 pm

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