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Board says plants protected

As far as the state is concerned, Island County is doing plenty to protect endangered and rare plantlife within its borders.

But as far as a group South Whidbey environmental activists are concerned, the county's government might as well be mowing rare plants for all the protection they are offering.

After more than eight years of petitioning the county to designate a slew of plant species as being worthy of protection, the Whidbey Environmental Action Network did not get what it wanted last Wednesday when the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board ruled Island County is doing an "adequate" job of protecting its plants. The opinion came as welcome news to the Island County Board of Commissioners, but it was one WEAN co-founder Steve Erickson didn't want to read.

"To say I found the board's decision confusing is putting it mildly," he said.

The confusion was enough to file an appeal, which will go before the state's superior court in January.

WEAN began the process to assess and protect native species, such as the blue flag iris, in 1991. With more than 4,000 reports in WEAN's database, he finds the hearings board's support of the county's claim that WEAN had never provided "sufficient information" to protect certain species out of line.

"I'm astonished that the board has agreed with the county, Erickson said. "This has been a sham process."

WEAN petitioned the county to protect 27 species in all. Its response, which was issued more than a year ago, listed several reasons for not pursuing the designation of the species. They were:

• WEAN presented insufficient information to the county.

• WEAN presented vague location information.

• Species information could be easily confused with plants of similar character.

• Virtually all of the plants are found in broad geographic ranges throughout many western states and British Columbia.

• Most of the plants can be purchased commercially.

• Imposing regulations to protect these plants would be beyond the County's reach, requiring willing voluntary actions by property owners.

The county supported its opinions with independent expertise, six public hearings and numerous special meetings with landowners who would potentially be impacted by new species protections.

Island County Commissioner Bill Thorn said last week that Island County is satisfied with the hearings board's decision.

"We are very pleased that the board saw it the way we did," he said. "We have no qualms to working with WEAN or Steve, but all of this information has been very vague. We set criteria we saw appropriate and we stand by that process."

The decision may have come partly due to some impatience on the part of the three hearings board members. They expressed their impatience and concern because "Island County and WEAN had been sparring for so long over WEAN's proposal."

Erickson said the board will have to revisit its decision process when the parties meet again in January for a superior court briefing during the appeal process.

Thorn said, with WEAN pressure, the county is reviewing other materials pertaining to additional species the group has listed as needing protection.

When WEAN made its list of 27 species -- all with less than nine known occurrences in the county -- county planners said WEAN had not looked hard enough to find other plant locations, Erickson said.

"A Nature Conservancy botanist told us to be concerned about any species found in less than 10 locations," Erickson said. "We are concerned, but I think we're the only ones. No one is challenging the board's decisions except us."

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