Difficult Times: Coping with Eco-Anxiety and Exurban Delusion as the Future Darkens

This morning we find a letter to you in the San Juan Update Mailbag from Steve Ulvi…

In the late 1960s, my outdoor adventures grew grittier; in wilder landscapes, greatly expanding on childhood camping trips.  My dominant interests became nature-centered, access under one’s own power.  I felt the thrum of the non-human community of life and began to see the shaping of deep time in natural cathedrals of forest, falling waters and weathered granite spires.  So many sweet spots – all now greatly diminished – scattered throughout the montane west. (The growth of the human swarm in America; 200 million in 1967 to 334 million today).

All of those places of wonder and rejuvenation, as well as the metastasizing asphalt jungle, had been aboriginal homeland; sites of spiritual renewal, distinct language and culture, and sustenance for hundreds of invisible generations of people.  On the fringes of the hard-used, fog enshrouded paradise of the San Fransisco Bay Area, my sense of being born too late grew. 

Like many impressionable northern California school-kids I was struck by the tragic story of ‘Ishi’, who back in 1911 had emerged starving and trembling, after an unimaginable four decades of hiding.  He subsisted alone in the foothills around Mt. Lassen following the final, ruthless slaughter of his harried tribe just after the Civil War.  I also learned that the last grizzly bear in the Golden State was also hunted down just a few years after ‘Ishi’ appeared from the past and become a famous, highly studied, living anachronism.  The extirpated Grizzly, from then on, lived only on the State Flag.

As my studies deepened, I lived simply among towering Douglas fir and insistent winter rain in Oregon, I discarded the fabricated histories I had been taught, I began to see all landscapes through a perspective of “I want to imagine this place as it was before the Euro-American domination”.  The life-long itch to live on the frontier of times past eventually took over.

It took a leap of faith in early 1974, with good companions, a pick-up load of useful stuff, a few hundred bucks among us, to settle past the end of the road in Interior Alaska.  The Northern Life – the toil, near disasters, wildlife encounters, unforgiving learning curves, pure elation, and increasing self-reliance playing out between abrupt seasonal changes in a winter dominant region – eventually became both the grounding rod and wellspring for my beliefs.  The last years of “Old Alaska” (pre-pipeline and the resulting massive land ownership transfers) felt elemental and unvarnished.  In 1980, by a strange twist of fate, a career helping to establish a huge new national preserve just downriver from Eagle in the national interest, found me out on the big river.  The clock can be metaphorically “turned back”, but change advances inexorably.

I came to often feel the dank breath of the Pleistocene, causing me to turn quickly to check my backtrail, especially while poking about in the gaunt arctic.   Sometimes aloneness was like a relentless heart ache.   But exhilaration was a regular companion. I also came to recognize, educated by countless scientists and many native people year after year, the advance of tangible climate warming 35 years ago, rippling through the boreal forest and especially Alaska’s arctic tundra region. Creeping, compounding changes; portending immense consequences.

Now the heart of my chosen home region is this southern Salish Sea, once comparable to the world’s richest waters in temperate latitudes.   Sadly, it has been blighted for over a century; a tidal toilet for poisonous industrial chemicals and waste, wetlands drained and farmed, cut and run harvests and river or highway projects where critical negative externalities regarding ecological connectivity and native rights of age-old use and occupancy, were criminally ignored.     

Many generations of human fishers and management biologists have suffered stupefaction while facing ecological complexity, the Big Lie of Hatchery Salvation and legions of growth-mongering politicians in collusion with developers.  The latter, as always, seemed to have understood the cost of everything and the value of nothing.  Even today, every one of us suffers from the post-modern confusion of the “tragedy of the commons” and “sliding baseline syndrome”, blinding us from respecting cautionary principles. Government, as a bulwark against rapacious capitalism, has failed at nearly every turn.

This summer, local salmon anglers had the door slammed on July 8th by federal and state managers struggling to protect endangered chinook stocks.   Our waters are a summer mixing zone for salmonids that three pods of Blackfish have depended upon forever.  Coincidentally, our plentiful Black Tail deer, many stressed and unhealthy, have been swept away by a highly contagious adenovirus hemorrhagic disease (and vehicle bumpers) over the past two years.  Perhaps the promising community meetings exploring ways to increase hunter harvest and decrease misguided feeding and petting zoo attitudes, will carry forward in our next deer eruption.

My greatest anguish has been the decimation of robust pacific salmon stocks; in cyclic hordes for some 5,000,000 years like red blood cells circulating to energize hundreds of thousands of miles of water lapping landscape edges.  Scores of genetically and seasonably separate ‘tribes’ or distinct stocks; the divine fine-tuning of evolution playing out over unfathomable eons.  They always surge homeward, following faint odors in impossibly long journeys, to re-create then to succumb, returning to the Cosmos the elements that were temporarily borrowed from that very place for birth and a migrant life.  Billions of salmon bodies energized soil, roots and living flesh of vast ecosystems, including distant uplands, with their rich flesh and oceanic minerals. They overcame or adapted to biblical floods and ice barriers again and again, through interminable glacial cycles across the northwestern expanse of a continent.  But they cannot adapt to our onslaught.

In just over 100 years, a single century, a moment in ecological time, we have foolishly nearly destroyed the salmon that predictably nourished first nation’s peoples, numbering in the millions, for well over 10,000 years.  As foretold by climate science, these damning trends for salmon are worsening – from birth gravels, to rivers, to estuaries, to the ocean deep – the result of deleterious impacts of warming masses of air and waters of the north Pacific gyre.   Even Yukon River summer chinook, once so precious to my family living 1,250 miles from the sea, are decimated.  Now, salmon as a sustainable source of fabulous protein, annual ecosystem enrichment, tourism and jobs are severely diminished here just as we desperately need them most.

Being of uncommonly mobile generations, most of us came here from somewhere else.  Increasingly, immigrants seek a reprieve from urban expanses of concrete, angry social unrest, long term drought or voracious forest blazes.  Many migrants seem to be gob-smacked by a bucolic beauty of this lands’ end while failing to understand the cascading decline of altered and sickly ecosystems.  Sadly, we hear the phrases indicative of exurban delusion; this eye-pleasing archipelago, salt chuck and land, is imagined to be “pristine”, “rich”, and even “wild”.  Yet those elemental states of nature no longer exist out here.

The fate of resident Blackfish, an extraordinary apex beast, is now nearly fixed just as Plains Buffalo, Passenger Pigeons and species ad nauseum erased earlier in our Anthropocene rampage. Their unsurprising plight generates intense scientific scrutiny and mostly superficial public angst.  Many scores of non-profits and governmental task forces thrive on the pipelines of money, chasing an unattainable miracle and grasping at straws of positive news. Dozens of commercially operated boats circling a few Blackfish and stupid recreational skippers refusing to give way to pod’s travel direction, were a very common sight until recently.

The Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts in the 1970s prevented further outright killing and capture, but agencies have burned a helluva lot of tax money since to fail miserably at enforcing critical habitat protection for the SRKW in their historic summer grounds.  Said to be the most studied cetaceans in the world, we will certainly be able to compose a finely detailed, if sorrowful, obituary.  How about just leaving this long-suffering Blackfish culture – southern salmon eaters – alone to adapt, die or migrate away with some dignity? 

Many say that this place is a special “Geography of Hope” (ala Wallace Stegner).  Actually, it feels like a tiny (but feisty), mostly progressive enclave of white ex-urbanites surrounded by a protective moat, within a vast trans-border maritime region that is bursting at the seams. Our sea margins here are on track to increase in population to at least 10 million, probably more, by 2050. 

An obviously fragile circumstance.  Supplies, electricity, foodstuffs and fuel are on the brink of surging cost increases (carbon fees and utility rates) and unpredictable delivery system failures.  Simultaneously, we will have to adjust, again and again, to conflicting pendulum swings of belated government actions to avoid a searing disaster of climate warming later on. Politics has descended to the level of Russian Roulette.

Public health will be a critical aspect of altered climatic regimes. Our slow national actions and convoluted social reactions to COVID 19, an endemic virus now, are indicative of just how challenging compounding impacts will be as the global drama unfolds.  In the American far west, lifeways and aspirations, the dreams of all those who come after us, will be nothing like what earlier generations were blessed with. But borrowing heavily from the future was always the American way.

For better or worse, backwater places like this will be largely on their own, while emergency reactions and national technological mobilization (like in WWII) will dominate politics and economic sectors. It is not promising that our nation has been balkanizing into regions of distinctly different beliefs, social values and divergent interpretations of the US Constitution. 

But given our proud sense of place and strength of community, we can bend the arc of our history toward a more sustainable future. Happily, we are profoundly fortunate to have so many talented minds and collective wealth.  As a result of our geographic blessings the central issues of climate crisis for the Northwest – decreasing snow pack, sea level rise and wildfires – are not so critical for us.  But clearly, we’ve got to cut through a fog of happy talk and inertia. Soon. 

Meaningful limits to population growth, conservation of water, enrichment of as much productive land as possible, building hundreds of units of permanently affordable housing and robust economic diversification are essential for any hope of security and flexibility leading to community resilience in the rough and tumble ahead.  The ongoing, painstaking update of the Comprehensive Plan 2036 could serve as the necessary roadmap.  Our County Land Conservation efforts, wonderfully successful, could provide parcels key to climate crisis adaptation, C02 mitigation and greater economic self-reliance.  A new Climate and Sustainability Advisory council is being formed by the Department of Environmental Stewardship, and creating a Climate Action Plan is essential.  But how many residents, newish like me or old island families, care enough to educate themselves, speak up, become involved, make some sacrifices and set aside petty differences to stand together to avoid the worst outcomes spinning off of a dangerous future?

Posted on November 23, 2021 at 5:42 am by

Categories: Environment, Letters, Nature


  1. As I settle comfortably into my senior years, I recall coming to the islands 50 years ago to escape the hoards on the mainland. That strategy worked…until, in just the last few months, the hoards moved to paradise (probably for similar reasons to yours and mine) and now the road traffic and lines at the post office have doubled!

    I draw your attention to Steve’s last paragraph of his excellently written essay: Where, in the first sentence of that paragraph, he starts with “meaningful limits to population growth” then adds “building hundreds of units of permanently affordable housing AND robust economic diversification” was going to lead us to community resilience. I was left scratching my head.

    YES, we need to “make some sacrifices and set aside petty differences to stand together to avoid the worst outcomes spinning off of a dangerous future,” but, boy, I’d like to join in on that discussion of how to limit population growth, which I see as inevitable! Is that entertaining reader-board at the Anacortes ferry landing some day going to say, “The lottery for residence applications in San Juan County is closed until further notice”?

    While I agree with Steve’s assessment of the environmental “worst outcomes” in the future, more hoards moving here to escape the other hoards on the mainland will drive me and mine to once again escape to some other as yet undiscovered paradise, and leave this sinking ship!

    Which reminds me of that old saying, “Here comes another moving van off the ferry; hope the island doesn’t sink.” Well, this version of that could be the NEW old saying…”Oh wait, there goes Morrison’s moving van ONTO the ferry. The islands will be ok as long as there is a balance of ‘leavers’ to ‘comers’.”

    Comment by Jim Morrison on November 23, 2021 at 8:42 am
  2. Wonderful article! We have lived on SJ for over 40 years and have seen a lot of change–both good and bad. Each of us needs to do our part–no matter how small.

    Comment by Janet Wright on November 23, 2021 at 8:57 am

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