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Interior Secretary: Federal lands in San Juans deserve immediate permanent protection

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar included the San Juan Islands in his list of ‘Crown Jewel’ federal lands deserving permanent protection. He delivered his recommendations to Congress at a press conference Thursday, November 10, 2011.

U.S. Senator Cantwell is leading legislation in the Senate and Congressman Rick Larsen (D-WA-02)is leading companion legislation in the House that would turn several dozen cherished spots spread across the San Juan Islands into a National Conservation Area (NCA). They say this will ensure continued public access and protection of these pristine parcels.

Secretary Salazar visited the San Juan Islands in April to view the parcels proposed for protection and discuss the proposal with local stakeholders. Secretary Salazar has asked the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to coordinate with a committee of local groups to prepare for a transition.

"Washingtonians should be proud of this national recognition of the unforgettable natural treasures of the San Juan Islands," said Cantwell. "More than 700,000 tourists come to experience these scenic parcels every year. And with visitor traffic increasing, it's time to have a clear management plan in place to protect these crown jewels. This locally-driven plan will ensure these cherished lands remain protected, accessible to the public, and better managed to accommodate continued visitor use and enjoyment. I will continue to push for the legislation necessary to make these protections a reality."

"The San Juan Islands should be preserved for not only residents and visitors today, but for future generations," said Larsen. "This designation shows that there is a compelling case to create a San Juan National Conservation Area and protect this land for recreation and enjoyment."

In late July, Cantwell and Larsen held a community listening session in Friday Harbor to hear feedback on the effort to create a National Conservation Area. The general public was not informed of this meeting. The self-appointed citizen committee working on the NCA and Council Chair Lovel Pratt were among the people invited to attend the session held in the legislative building in Friday Harbor on the Saturday morning of the Port's air show and the Peace-Island Hospital ribbon-cutting.

Cantwell says, the citizen-driven effort to preserve these lands has generated widespread, passionate support from the community, which has actively worked with her and Larsen on the legislation.

An NCA designation would ensure that approximately 1,000 acres of federally-owned lands would remain in their natural state and publicly accessible. The federally-owned lands include over 60 locations that range from pine forests to lighthouses and are visited by more than 70,000 tourists every year.

There is currently no long-term comprehensive management plan for these lands. Proponents say, an NCA designation will help ensure long-term protection of these natural treasures, keep them accessible and in the public domain, and better managed to accommodate heavier visitor use. The NCA land would anchor a system that includes a National Wildlife Refuge along with a National Historic Park.

Cantwell has long been a strong advocate on efforts to preserve Washington's natural landscape. On San Juan Island, she led the effort to secure federal funding to prevent a private, out-of-state real-estate developer from obtaining ownership of Mitchell Hill, a popular and scenic hiking trail. Because of the efforts of both Cantwell and Larsen, Mitchell Hill remains in the public domain and is protected against private development as part of the San Juan Island National Historical Park.

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