WEAN, county, argue flowers

Steve Erickson said that he wants Island County officials to “stop beating around the bush” when it comes to protecting locally rare plant species.

At a hearing before the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board on Wednesday, Erickson represented the Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN). He accused the county of perpetual inaction in designating and protecting “species of local importance” as pursuant to the requirements of the Growth Management Act currently in place.

Island County legal representative Keith Dearborn, in turn, said that Erickson’s portrayal of Whidbey Island as a “backward, recalcitrant, neanderthal county with no regard for the environment,” was tiresome.

“That rhetoric has gotten very old,” Dearborn said.

Tiresome or not, the rhetoric exhibited by both sides of the debate represents an ongoing struggle over ecological conservation that, since 1991, has pitted WEAN against allegedly pro-development forces in county government. The hearing also symbolized, in microcosm, what is arguably the most problematic issue regarding the future of Whidbey Island. In a word, that issue is growth — its costs and benefits, its pros and cons, and its toll.

In this specific instance, the controversy revolves around a taxonomic list of between 30 and 40 local prairie plants — including such species as the blue flag iris (Iris missouriensis) — and whether they should fall under the protective auspices of the GMA as adopted by the county.

There is much disagreement among environmentalists, county officials and aggravated property owners over how, why and even if such classification and resulting bureaucratic regulation should occur.

Erickson, for his part, said that he takes the “long view” in WEAN’s fight to protect local plant species.

For instance, Erickson said that Whidbey Island is the last know location throughout Western Washington where the blue flag iris, a species of flower that’s “been growing since the end of the Ice Age,” has been found to occur in its natural habitat. Erickson said that he therefore considers this plant to be a part of “everybody’s natural heritage,” and that it’s incumbent upon island residents to protect the plant’s habitat.

“Basically, we’re losing those species,” said Erickson. “We’ve got to caretake those areas.”

Furthermore, Erickson said that he considers the ravages of development to be the primary cause of the decline in local plant species such as the iris.

“The most immediate and drastic causes (of plant loss) are just plain out-and-out destruction,” he said. Erickson also argued that it’s “more than a tendency” for Island County officials to favor new construction over ecological conservation.

“Whenever there’s a situation where protection of the environment is in question,” Erickson said, “the balance of doubt is given to development.”

Many of the dozen or so private-property owners attending Wednesdays hearing, however, appeared to take exception with Erickson’s stance on the matter of ecological protection.

Mike Stevenson lives in the Sky Meadow community on Grassers Hill in Coupeville, an area where the blue flag iris is known to grow. Stevenson said that he objects to Erickson’s seeking of further regulations to protect a plant that is already protected.

“Speaking for the community,” said Stevenson, “we understand and appreciate the beauty of these plants. We don’t want them to go away.”

Stevenson said he and his neighbors do not need another county ordinance telling them to do something he claims they already do. “We would like the county to allow us to manage (the plants) ourselves,” he said.

To this end, Stevenson said that members of Sky Meadow voluntarily, and in coordination with the National Parks Service, drafted a 27-page management plan for the blue flag iris, and that the community would probably do the same for any other plants that are listed as endangered.

“Endangered plants are serious stuff,” said Stevenson. He added, though, that “there are ways to take care of plants and flowers without more laws.”

The Sky Meadow plan was completed on Oct. 3, the day of the hearing, and is currently up for review by the county.

Erickson said that property owners have been promising they would enter into a voluntary agreement with the Parks Service since the mid-1980s. He added that preservation goes beyond simply protecting the plants that are already there; it’s a question of preserving the habitat and the entire ecosystem.

As for the communities on Grassers Hill, Erickson said that “none of those houses were there ten years ago,” and that it is such rapid growth itself, when unmanaged, that threatens existing plant species.

“If natural resources aren’t consciously protected,” Erickson said, “they’re going to get wiped out. They’ll be lost forever.”

He added that Whidbey Island “is a place with a great big development bull’s-eye on it.”

During the Wednesday hearing presided over by Hearings Board member Les Eldridge, Erickson took aim at his own bull’s-eye, arguing that county officials have continuously failed to act in accordance with the GMA by neglecting to designate and thereby protect numerous plant species that WEAN considers “threatened by extirpation.”

Erickson contended that, under the Critical Areas Ordinance, the designation of locally endangered plant species “is not voluntary, it’s required.” He added that, by such alleged tactics as redefining what phrases like “sensitive to habitat manipulation” mean, the county has perpetually raised the bar on the standards of inclusion for plant species jeopardized by extinction.

Dearborn countered that there has never been sufficient information for the county to decide that all of the species on WEAN’s list should be classified as “species of local importance.” He said that the county has always acted appropriately whenever a particular species is officially recognized as endangered, and that county officials have never sidestepped the proper review process for identifying and designating endangered flora.

At one point, Dearborn took exception with what he called Erickson’s portrayal of the county as “devious in our unfairness.”

Furthermore, Dearborn maintained that county officials in the past have requested and never received Erickson’s fieldwork for review, nor have they ever received from Erickson accurate location sites where they could scout the occurrence of candidate species.

Dearborn seriously questioned the scientific veracity of Erickson’s fieldwork by pointing out his status as an “advocate” rather than a scientist. He said that, as opposed to the allegedly methodological inconsistencies of WEAN’s research, the county has continued to use the appropriate criteria when designating locally endangered flora.

In a later interview, Erickson said that it’s difficult to respond to the “sort of general broadside” Dearborn made about his scientific status. Erickson said that his field notes are available upon request, and also that WEAN has shown no lack of cooperation in offering to take county officials out to sites where candidate plant species are located.

“I’d be delighted to take anybody from the county out,” said Erickson, where he could show them the plants in question.

The WWGM board will hand down a decision once all three of its acting members have had opportunity to review transcripts of the hearing. Basically, they will rule whether the county is or is not in compliance with the current Growth Management Act.

Erickson said that WEAN is “hopeful that the board will order the county to protect these species.”

If, by chance, the decision goes the other way, Erickson said that it’s “real possible” that WEAN will appeal to Superior Court.

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