Washington State Ferry

Travel to the San Juan Islands aboard Washington State Ferries. ©Priscilla Willis

As the Anacortes ferry glides through the pristine waters of the Salish Sea to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, we meander the multiple decks snapping pics of nautical gear and gasping at the incredible splendor of Mother Nature surrounding us, our shutters clicking frantically to capture the moment.

The San Juan Islands are a haven for visitors with a desire to unwind and immerse themselves in natural beauty while savoring all that the “Arts Hot Spot” has to offer, perhaps not realizing that the island archipelago’s long-term commitment to stewardship is vital in preserving and conserving this idyllic destination for current and future generations.

What is Environmental Stewardship?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Environmental stewardship is the responsibility for environmental quality shared by all those whose actions affect the environment.” Individuals, communities, businesses, institutions, and governments all share this responsibility. Since 2005, the EPA’s programs have reinforced the idea of environmental stewardship.  If you are interested in more information on available programs and/or resources, click here.

At every turn during our group’s stay on San Juan Island, I was reminded of the importance of caring for our environment. Feeling privileged to witness the pristine beauty of the islands, I soon discovered that every artist, resident, and business owner we encountered was thoroughly invested in preserving the legacy that the native Coast Salish people left for them.

"Interaction" red cedar sculpted house post at Friday Harbor.

Native artist Susan Point’s “Interaction” red cedar house post overlooking Friday Harbor honors the Coast Salish people. ©Priscilla Willis

Upon your arrival at Friday Harbor, stroll through the park overlooking the harbor and appreciate native artist Susan Point’s “Interaction” sculpture which speaks to the San Juan Islands: “We care for the environment and the responsible interaction between people and wildlife.” Originally used inside the longhouse dwellings of the Coastal Salish people to support roof beams, the traditional house post tells a story of the families that raised them. The plaque erected nearby explains that the alternating paws and hands of the woman and the mountain lion represent the recognition and tolerance that humans and animals must have for each other. The round copper dome reflects their shared environment. A second post (not shown) symbolizes the marine ecosystem by depicting a whale as the top of the food chain. Beneath, two salmon balance on a disc representing the sun. The sun is life, and the salmon egg within denotes new life. The artist’s intention is that one completes the life cycle when seated before the house post.

View of the Olympic Mountains from San Juan National Historic Park

From the San Juan National Historic Park, four other national parks are visible: Olympic, Mount Rainer, Ebey’s Landing, and North Cascades. ©Priscilla Willis

Stewardship in the San Juan Islands

The San Juan County Land Bank and San Juan Preservation Trust (NGO) spearhead most of the conservation efforts. Islanders agree that it is crucial to ensure the distinct character of life in these islands and, to this end, created the San Juan County Land Bank in 1990. For the past 30 years, one percent of all real estate transactions are allocated to the Land Bank to fund preservation efforts. The fact that the community and local government have a concerted, deep, decades-long commitment to maintaining the history, lifestyle, and natural resources of the islands is impressive.

Lime Kiln lighthouse on San Juan Island, Washington

Lime Kiln Lighthouse in Lime Kiln Point State Park, Friday Harbor, WA. ©Priscilla Willis

The Land Bank purchased the preserves that dot San Juan Island to ensure their care in perpetuity.  There are public and private preserves. The public preserves provide public access to rustic trails, shoreline, or wildlife viewing areas. Preserves also help protect the incredible array of plants, animals, and habitats that make the islands unique.

The Land Bank’s stewardship program facilitates the values and vision of the Land Bank with the goal of understanding and protecting the significant conservation values of each property entrusted to them. (San Juan Island’s Land Bank)

The San Juan Preservation Trust is a private, nonprofit, nationally accredited land trust dedicated to helping people and communities conserve land in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. Since its founding in 1979, the Preservation Trust has permanently protected more than 300 properties, 45 miles of shoreline, 27 miles of trails, and more than 17,000 acres on 20 islands, including land now managed by public parks, nature preserves, wildlife habitat, and working farms and forests. (San Juan Preservation Trust)

The islands have a naturally relaxed vibe with an undercurrent of excitement. You’ll understand what I mean when, ears hyper tuned-in listening for the spout of an Orca or humpback whale, you spot an Orca’s glistening form near the boat or a bald eagle’s striking silhouette as it floats effortlessly through the air scanning the water for prey. Your heart leap will leap as you view the panorama from Lime Kiln Lighthouse. Perched high above the Salish Sea, it is one of the best whale watching spots in the world. (Note: To protect endangered whale species, guidelines for whale watching in Washington state are changing in 2019, please visit Be Whale Wise for the most current information.)

Pelindaba Lavender farm, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island

Pelindaba Lavender fields in May. Friday Harbor, San Juan Island. ©Priscilla Willis

Pelindaba Lavender’s Open Space Project

In 1998, Steven Robins bought 20 acres in Friday Harbor because he wanted to protect it from residential development and share the pastoral beauty of the open space with locals and island visitors. As an homage to his South African roots, Robins named the area “Pelindaba,” a Zulu word that translates to “Place of Great Gatherings” and perfectly expresses his vision for a beautiful open space for the gathering of crops and people. Initially, his priority was merely to improve the appearance of the property by removing derelict outbuildings and fences while he researched the type of crop he wanted to plant. He was steadfast in his criteria that the crop could not compete with other farmers on the island. It had to be non-invasive with low water and fertilizer requirements, and it had to be a productive and physically attractive crop that would enhance the natural beauty of the landscape. Just as importantly, Robins desired a product with a discernible path to economic viability. Eventually, he decided on lavender and a simple plan—plant a small field and sell the crop to others to do with as they wished. Pelindaba was born.

They prepared the fields, and in 1999, they planted 2,500 lavender starts which thrived in the sunny, not too rainy rain-shadow effect of San Juan Island’s climate. Encouraged, they planted 5,000 more starts in 2000. Unfortunately, that same year saw the rise in the cost of lavender raw materials, and Robins realized that, if they were to become economically sustainable, they would have to go well beyond their modest initial plan and venture into handcrafting value-added lavender products themselves. Today, Pelindaba offers hundreds of botanical, decorative, culinary, personal care, therapeutic, household, and pet care products made from certified organic flowers, buds, and essential oils and produced in their Production Center to ensure the highest quality. Pelindaba’s success began with an intense desire to protect the island’s magnificent land from residential development and is a model for responsible, sustainable entrepreneurship.

Sustainable travel is a growing trend in travel, and if you desire to be a conscientious traveler and are passionate about supporting local communities or preserving wildlife and natural resources, you may be interested in checking out the following links:

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