The other day at a party I found myself reminiscing with a long-time Lopez Islander about her early days on the island. She found herself, after multiple missteps, living in a horse trailer parked in a muddy field. Her comment was that she preferred living in a horse trailer on Lopez to living in a house where she came from. This comment may come as close as anything to crystalizing the essence of what it means to be an islander. That those who have chosen to make long term homes here have generally done so in contravention of economics, regulations and flat out common sense. Most working islanders have some such similar story, from trailer living to tipi living to living under a stump to (my personal favorite) living under a piece of plastic in the Craig Alaska cemetery for two years (another, larger island-with much, much more rain).
My wife and I built and lived for seven years in a two hundred square foot cabin with a few twelve-volt lights, a wood cook-stove and no running water. Two and a half of those years included our oldest son. This too was in a very muddy field, likely a wetland. And of course the struggles of modern day settlers pale in comparison with our pioneer forebears who lacked Laundromats, friends and neighbors with plumbing and electricity and warm dry vehicles with radios—a treasured refuge for funky living folks through the modern decades. Imagine landing on a strange green shore with no prospect other than decades of hard toil and privation. Hops and orchards were common pioneer crops because they could be planted in amongst the stumps of the vanquished forests without needing to immediately clear the enormous roots. Early pioneer diaries tell of bonnets rotting and mildewing on primitive clotheslines and long winters spent hoarding precious food supplies and dodging storms. This pioneering, persevering spirit is what has built and shaped the landscape and sociology of San Juan County. We continue to be blessed with the ongoing achievements of pioneers new and old.
Howie Rosenfeld’s column about Ernie Gann and stewardship struck an off-chord with me. I was struck by his blithe dismissal of those who struggle with modern day challenges, including regulations. And while I, too, am deeply grateful for the legacy that the Ganns and others have maintained in landscape preservation, the story does not end there. We are truly blessed to have citizens with the vision and resources to dedicate themselves to conservation. We are also blessed to have people of modest means who are willing to beat themselves up to staff our stores, schools and services, volunteer for endless community needs, and maintain the vital working core of our communities. These are the people who are now being sacrificed in the meat grinder that our county policies and process has become. Our grass roots human community and economy will not survive the coming wave of government expansion. We will lose what human diversity and vitality we currently have here and San Juan County will come to be a very different place. For those of us in resource businesses we have realized the oncoming tide as an existential threat. At the very least there will be no new farms, no new resource businesses, no more up-and-comers in San Juan County.
Some months ago I happened across a quote in the Sounder from Patty Miller. Asked about economic development in the county, she replied that enhanced wireless access would enable the growth of telecommuting. This too struck an off-chord with me. Howie’s column reflects the same point, but adds the notion that enhanced environmental rules will actually attract new business and jobs, presumably enough to replace those that are going to be destroyed. It occurs to me that the majority of our current council behave as if they work for a future and speculative constituency, as if the desires and priorities of our current population are irrelevant to their deliberations and decisions. The fact that current residents, rather than Telecommuters of the Future, or the D.O.E., pay Ms. Miller’s wages and support our massive county infrastructure, should be glaringly obvious, but appears not to be.
Further, I am nonplussed by Howie’s jump from lauding the Ganns, who used voluntary, philanthropic, collaborative means to protect their working farm-lands, to pushing the CAO update, which is wholly coercive, punitive, confiscatory and arbitrary. The bitter irony is that much of the agriculture occurring on these lands, the very purpose for which these lands were conserved, will be subject to insane levels of scrutiny under the CAO and may well not survive. Howie argues that the CAO will prevent the ruination of our environment. Nobody here wants to see the despoliation of this place. Nobody here wants to see unfettered development. Our family’s livelihood entirely depends on a robust, healthy ecosystem in San Juan County. But the CAO will not ensure a functional, usable natural environment; rather we will see excruciatingly expensive intrusion and process for little or no environmental gain. What all this will do is create a kind of eco-police state, where neighbors are encouraged to turn in neighbors and where all other considerations are subordinate to perceived environmental correctness. It will destroy the social wetlands and warm lacunae that foster and harbor the most vulnerable and creative segments of our society. It will destroy the critical areas of enterprise, in which ferment our businesses and prosperity. It will drop a firm economic curtain on new arrivals. Those without the means of proving the “sustainability” of their actions will be excluded from full participation in our community, and eventually pushed out altogether.
San Juan County has actually, up until now, been very creative in crafting solutions to threats of excessive development and environmental degradation. The Preservation Trust and Land Bank both work cooperatively and collaboratively with landowners to conserve land. Tax incentives, grants and technical advice from a bevy of sources achieve the same. Many landowners deliberately choose to manage their properties with conservation as their primary concern. Many others simply leave land fallow, achieving the same result. Zoning has limited further subdivision potential to a minimum as it is. There are many options remaining, such as transferable development credits, which could be tremendous tools into the future. What all these remedies accommodate, and the CAO does not, is the notion of inalienable property and personal rights—that is that the government is free to attempt to purchase a parcel or persuade landowners towards certain outcomes, but may not coerce a state goal on private property with private resources. This limitation is not for convenience; it is a hedge against tyranny or sadistic and capricious officials. We are seeing the notion of individual and property rights whittled down to irrelevance, in the name of very dubious science. Science and policy both are subject to fads and mis/disinformation. At one point eugenics and forced sterilization of “undesirables” was considered a legitimate state goal with broad “expert” support. Farm and food policy is littered with state-sponsored scientific solutions that proved utter disasters. Asking our government to find creative and non-coercive means of achieving their environmental goals, as they are required to do in other spheres seems a reasonable check and balance on this tendency.
I have been in the county and in our lines of business (fisheries, farming and aquaculture) long enough to have observed significant cycles and changes in our weather, water conditions and wildlife abundance. Many ecological indicators have been moving in a positive direction these last twenty years. Pink salmon, for instance, are now at historically high levels of abundance. Small rockfish have returned to the near-shore in huge numbers. Pacific cod, absent for thirty-plus years, are again swarming the deep waters. Any measure of terrestrial wildlife has increased in this time. All this has happened with no deliberate regulatory action on these fronts. Further, I have been around long enough to observe seasons in the affairs of our human residents. When I lived with the Buzzard family logging was big business driven by export markets. Activists protested, sabotaged equipment and editorialized ad-nauseum. Today logging is almost an irrelevancy in the county. We all saw the real estate and development frenzy peak and then flame out these past years. I have seen waves of people, of money, of ideologies and enthusiasms approach, crest and recede in San Juan County. Natural dynamics are in constant flux. Human communities need to be free to do the same. My favorite story about the Ganns is that when they first arrived, Dodie went to work in the cannery to get to know her new neighbors. I don’t know Dodie well, but she strikes me as a deeply kind, humble person. And yes, Mr. Rosenfeld, I am grateful to the Ganns for leaving such an expansive legacy in San Juan Valley. I am grateful to Dodie for making her entrée into the San Juan Community as a fish slimer. But I am equally grateful to our friend for enduring a year in a horse trailer to make her positive mark on the county. And I am grateful that we were able to incubate our family and business in an illegal, substandard, cheap dwelling. I think everyone should have such an opportunity.
And questioning our leadership on their actions and logic does not make me or anyone else a crazed despoiler, any more than pointing out the insane bloating of our county spending makes me a rabid, anti school-funding zealot. The ferocity of county attacks on me and on others who raise these issues may be a measure of how dubious and circular the logic is with the courthouse crew. As a thought experiment, try asking our council members why, in lean budget times, threatening to slash Sheriff’s deputies is a better choice than pruning administrative expenses? How about sacrificing some of our numerous special committees? All terribly important, I am sure, but a higher priority than essential public services? What prospects would face a ballot measure proposing a special tax to pay for a county spokesperson, the recently exposed pay increases for senior managers and the five most expensive committees?--Mr. Rosenfeld is selling us a bill of goods characterized by false choices—CAO vs. unfettered development. Tax increases vs. deep cuts to critical public services. We need to recognize these choices for the sophistry they are and hold those pushing this Kool-Aid accountable for their failures of leadership.