The San Juan Islands

Population growth in the San Juan Islands has increased ground and water pollution,  while  legions  of  commercial  and  private  whale-watchers  disturb  whales  and other  marine  creatures.  Overfishing  and  habitat  destruction  have  severely  limited  (in some  cases  to  extinction)  wild  runs  of  salmon,  which  force  whales  and  other  marine mammals to deplete local fish resources or leave the area to find food.

Standing  on  the  deck  of  a  Puget  Sound ferryboat,   gazing   at   the   snowcapped peaks  of  the  Olympic  Peninsula,  it  seems odd to imagine the thickly strewn San Juan Islands  surrounding  your  boat  as  mountain  peaks  themselves.  But  today  this ancient  range,  submerged  at  the  end  of the last ice age, is simply dwarfed by those towering youngsters across the way.

Now here’s the twist: The Olympic range casts what’s called a “rainshadow” over the sound, blocking the rainfall that soaks most of the Northwest. As a result, the San Juan Islands are a rare mosaic of microclimates, some rainforest, some desert, often on the same  islands.  Here  you’ll  find  rare  and endangered plants, such as the brittle cactus, the naked broomrape, and the golden paintbrush,  alongside  patches  of  ferns, mosses,  and  lichens,  and  old-growth  for-ests  of  cedar,  hemlock,  yew,  and  alder. These  tiny  specialized  habitats  are  often unrecognized,  tucked  away  in  crevices  of coastal  cliffs,  in  a  patch  of  grassland  or small stand of trees. They’re not big enough to  be  marked  as  nature  preserves—but they need to be preserved all the same.

The San Juan archipelago has 175 islands big  enough  to  be  given  names;  another 500 or so smaller outcroppings punctuate the waters in between, accessible only by boat.  Ferries  visit  only  four  islands  (San Juan,  Orcas,  Lopez,  and  Shaw),  and  only those first three have tourist accommodations.  For  years,  the  San  Juans  preserved unspoiled habitats, with approximately 83 islands  designated  wildlife  refuges.  The San Juans have the largest breeding population of bald eagles in the United States, and  they’re  a  magnet  for  migrating  wildlife—not  only  orcas  and  minke  whales (whale-watching expeditions set out from all  the  main  harbors  June–Sept),  but  also trumpeter    swans,    snow    geese,    and salmon.  You’re  likely  to  spot  dall  porpoises, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, and brown  river  otters,  too,  especially  if  you venture around in a kayak.

Unfortunately,  all  this  natural  beauty may be the islands’ undoing. The word is out, and San Juan County has attracted so many  new  residents,  its  population  has almost  tripled  since  1990.  As  more  and more homes are crowded onto the islands, less  land  is  open  to  shelter  those  fragile microclimates.  Alien  species  such  as  red foxes  and  rabbits  overrun  some  islands, crowding  out  native  species.  An  upsurge in  tourism  is  also  a  problem,  as  more hikers tramp through its parks and venture too  close  to  seabirdnesting  areas  or  the rocky coves where harbor seals bask. The popularity of boating around these islands has  begun  to  wreak  havoc  with  its  off-shore eelgrass and kelp beds, so vital for sustaining marine life.

Visit the San Juan Islands if at all possible—but  be  the  best  sort  of  visitor  you can. Stay on walking paths, observe beach closures,  moor  your  boat  only  at  desig-nated  sites,  and  deal  with  eco-conscious tour  groups.  It’s  the  least  a  nature  lover can do.