Trumpeter Swans in the San Juan Islands

February 24, 2016 by demtillidie


This piece was first published by Jim  Nollman in The Island Independent in 1992. It has since been anthologized in a few different books of nature writing. It was last re-edited in December 2015.

The Swan Song by Jim Nollman, San Juan Island

In Meandering Rivers and Square Tomatoes, Milenko Matanovic asks a question about the language of real estate: “why are new housing developments named for what they have destroyed? Do you see any oaks at the Oak Grove Condominiums; any eagles at Eagles nest? In fact the names are tombstones, not the living reality.”

On San Juan Island we have the Trumpeter Inn located on Trumpeter Way. So far, these place names have escaped the onus of Matanovic’s rule. Driving down San Juan Valley Road on any day between November and March, one is apt to observe the dazzling spectacle of half a dozen trumpeter swans cavorting in the adjacent wetlands with their long necks stuck deep into the water rooting out a winter’s meal.

A few year’s back, a forty acre, six lot housing project was proposed for the land adjacent to Trumpeter Way. The developers were well aware of State and Federal regulations for protecting swan habitat. Ostensibly trying to do the right thing, they applied to the County Planning Commission to construct a four foot tall fence topped with barbed wire around the three open sides of the wetland, and then negotiated with the Preservation Trust to place a conservation easement on the entire parcel. No building would be sited within 100 feet of the 13.6 acre wetland. It looked encouraging on paper.

But following Matanovic’s rule, the name they chose for the new development did not bode well for the swans. They wanted to call it Swan Valley.

During the initial hearing before the Planning Commission in Friday Harbor, the County planner declared that, in terms of real swan preservation, it would be far better to cluster the homes in a group further away from the wetlands. His strongly worded statement concluded that “once the swan’s leave, they will not come back.” Despite this condemnation of the building project, the planner went on to demonstrate a preference for property values over swan habitat by recommending approval.

As the issue became increasingly public, The Journal of the San Juans interviewed an ornithologist representing the Washington Trumpeter Swan Society. She pointed out that the island contains the second largest concentration of wintering swans in the state of Washington, and that this population is losing ground to development. Whereas 61 birds were counted in 1989, there were only 45 birds in 1991. She then brought up the crucial point that, although the developer’s proposed fence might protect the habitat from physical incursion, it could not muffle noise. All the acoustic detritus of human society — lawn mowers, chain saws, barking dogs, model airplane clubs, Saturday afternoon barbecues — will cause trumpeter swans to take flight. This noise would assuredly turn Swan valley into another branded tombstone.

The Planning Commissioners listened to this damning testimony, and then voted 7-1 in favor of the developers. It seemed the same old story of who actually wields power in Friday Harbor where there are more real estate offices than food stores. The commissioner’s decision was widely interpreted as rewarding good intentions rather than a real solution. What mostly seemed to matter was that the developers had sworn to put up real cash to protect the swans, and their promise accrued far more weight than the impersonal testimony of the swan expert. Her description of actual swan behavior had apparently transformed into a moot point, perhaps invalidated as an example of shrill environmental rhetoric. While no one who followed land politics in the County seemed surprised by the vote, a lot of citizens got angry.

The wetlands strung out along the top of San Juan Valley  are ideal swan habitat. During the winter, the prevailing wind blows off the Strait of Juan de Fuca, aiding the birds when they need to get airborne. The maritime temperature remains relatively clement, and the wetland sumps provide an ample diet of roots and tubers. The wetlands are surrounded by open pastures with occasional large farms set on knolls and outcroppings off in the distance. It’s a typical pastoral setting in the grand style, and one reason why some locals consider the valley to be among the most scenic views on an island full of scenic views. Cows graze adjacent to the wetland. The swans don’t seem to mind the cows.

The fence was meant to remind us that swans do mind dogs and hunters. Despite Federal laws against hunting swans, at least three have been shot in the County over the past ten years. Perhaps ironically, in each case the poacher never bothered to collect the dead bird. In one notorious case, a thousand dollar reward led to the arrest of a local teenager. The local Court sentenced him to writing a public apology in the local paper. Dogs are just as bad. Gentle family pets get put out at night to form into roving packs. Their best known prey are the newborn lambs of early spring, although nobody keeps count of all the dead deer found with their bellies ripped open. In wintertime, the barking of nearby dogs gets the swans soaring. Hunters shooting at nearby ducks also sets the swans to flight.

Unfortunately, setting a swan to flight is more serious than it sounds. Swans are among the heaviest of flying birds, needing a considerable amount of calories simply to get airborne. An animal that constantly expends energy on takeoffs and landings may not make it through the winter months when food is scarce. If the temperature drops too low, a flying swan can easily end up freezing to death. Some authorities believe the trumpeters undergo a change in metabolism once they arrive at their winter habitat. Their bodies slow down, placing the animals at risk if forced to take to the air.

For these reasons, swans tend to congregate in the same safe havens year after year. It also explains why swans rarely linger in a habitat that is suddenly altered by objects like fences. Although their small brains may not be able to reason as humans define the term, they instinctively view the fence as a source of risk.

The U.S. Trumpeter Swan Society has long promoted an integrated legal designation that unequivocally connects swans to habitat. If we can keep the few extant swan habitats free of all human encroachment, the swans will thrive. Unfortunately, this proposal waves a red flag in the face of duck hunters who wish to exploit the same habitat. It is primarily the hunter’s lobby that keeps this common sense approach from ever being ratified into law.

Human trespass on swan habitat is certainly not a modern phenomenon. Trumpeters once ranged across all of North America. The pioneers viewed them as a source of meat and feathers; and Audubon himself preferred swan quills for detail work. During the 19th century, swan stocks vanished successively from the eastern U.S., the Mississippi Valley, and the Prairies. By the beginning of the 20th century trumpeters were close to extinction everywhere outside of Alaska. At that point, the swans started receiving the protection they needed. Just two nesting pairs found in Yellowstone in 1919, eventually grew to a flock of 400 birds by 1960. Along with recovery, came a gradual change in their endangered status. Swan experts agree that the trumpeter swan faces an uncertain future. Stocks have dropped at least 20% over the past twenty years, a loss clearly tied to the destruction of wetlands on the Northern Prairie. As farmers and developers work to control a diminishing water supply, they inevitably dam more prairie wetlands. The swans have no place else to go.

The Washington State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) guidelines were written to provide local governments with guidelines for insuring the protection of the environment in decisions pertaining to growth. In the case of the Swan Valley long plat, both the developer’s fence and his hundred foot setback are the direct result of SEPA recommendations. The two have proven effective at protecting many species of ducks around the State. But as we have already learned, trumpeter swans are more fragile than ducks.

Like so much wildlife legislation, SEPA’s effectiveness lies in its interpretation. The swan expert had testified that the fenced setback would protect that skin-deep section of real estate designated as wetlands, but it would assuredly scare away the swans. In other words, the map is not the territory, and SEPA doesn’t actually protect the animals it was written for unless lawmakers interpret the law to include the worst case scenario of the most fragile species present. In the course of researching this article, every person I talked to within the State and Federal bureaucracy admitted to wrestling with this issue on a daily basis. Each of them confronted it the same way, which might be generalized as “sometimes yes, and sometimes no.”

This leads to serious questions about SEPA’s efficacy. What if, hypothetically, there are ten swan habitats on San Juan island. One plot gets developed because no advocate bothers to speak up for swans. Then another one gets developed. And another. Is there some point where the enforcement agencies automatically step in, because some specific percentage or number (is it 4 wetlands or 6?) have been destroyed over a designated period of years. One lone soul within the US Wildlife Service answered “there is no central eco-police force and it’s a problem as development accelerates.” Local governments remain the primary interpreters of SEPA, even though they rarely look beyond the needs of the local economy.” On San Juan Island, many locals remain adamant that the Planning department deals with ecological issues as one aspect of the one-at-a-time real estate packages being submitted to them.

The San Juan Islands are gorgeous, but with a limited island economy manifesting on a limited land base. The scenic glory attracts people who don’t actually need to make a living within this reatrictive economy.  Thus, dealing real estate and building grand homes are among the very few ways a Local can actually get rich here. The charged economics of land use causes property rights issues to reside at the heart of every local politician’s platform. The threat of outside policing of “growth” was always the force driving San Juan County’s costly uprising against the State of Washington’s mandated Growth Management Act (GMA). As the GMA related directly to the protection of wetlands, the much-maligned plan would make cluster housing mandatory. No one was surprised when cluster housing became one of the first things dropped from the local Commissioners’ rewrite of the GMA.

The heat generated by property rights advocates fighting restrictions sometimes turns ferocious. Those who make the most money from development also spend the most money to control due process. When developers follow the rules they expect to get their permits. When they don’t get them, especially for an obscure reason — such as the caloric needs of wintering swans —they end up suing the local government. County Commissioners and their minions learn to live in healthy respect of this public revenue-draining strategy.

One County planner had voiced strong opposition to Swan Valley, but then approved the proposal. He told a local paper that, “We could only encourage the developer to build cluster housing. He chose not to follow our recommendation. As long as his development met the permit requirements, we were legally bound to pass it.” Privately, he admitted to me that he had been told to protect the County from a lawsuit. No one in County government was willing to go on record as an ornithological interpreter of a litigiously risky law, even if it meant the certain death of a key swan habitat. But if that’s the case, one must wonder how long any government is willing to turn to a wholly ineffective guideline if it not only kills that which it was written to protect, but which everyone involved wishes to protect?

I am not a neutral journalist documenting somebody else’s issue. I live in San Juan Valley, and pass by that swan habitat every time I drive into Friday Harbor. When I read the account of the planning commissioner’s proceedings in the local newspaper, first I got mad, and then I got cynical. I was convinced that the developer would save himself a lot of trouble and fencing money by simply going out onto that wetlands with a PA system and scaring the birds away for good. I believed such an action would ultimately be doing the swans a favor. At least they wouldn’t fall prey to dogs and herbicide poisoning in the years to come.

There are too many people like me who derive satisfied annoyance sitting in armchairs analyzing the horrendous environmental problems of the system, without making any effort to change it. If more of us got involved even to the extent of taking the time to vote a little more thoughtfully we would eventually transform the current inequitable situation where the majority of wildlife advocates are un-funded volunteers while the majority of development advocates are lawyers making $150 an hour. Wildlife pleads for us to confront politicians and bureaucrats not willing to buck the local real estate establishment.

With sentiments like that tugging at my soul, I got involved. It stared with the clichéd steeplechase of blind phone calls to bureaucrats who consistently sent me somewhere else. Some officials made me feel that I wasn’t a grown up when I asked if there was anyone in the state or federal government who could actually do the job, right now, of protecting those swans. One woman in Olympia assumed a motherly tone to drop this bomb: “You want to protect swans? That’s why people start environmental groups, isn’t it?” Whenever it got this hard, I took a deep breath and repeated my mantra: “save the swans”.

My telephone rap had started out sounding like a line drawn in the dirt. By the twentieth call, I had restated the case so often, that it condensed into a veritable press release:

No one, including the development community, wants the swans to disappear from San Juan Island. Everyone would rather our children see swans in Swan Valley in ten years rather than a bunch of ten year old houses and a rusty fence. Listen to the experts. They have cast serious doubt on the current plan. The developer has other alternatives. Get him to choose one and let’s all be done with it.

This statement got the attention of wildlife regulators at both the State and Federal level. Official letters on government stationary were soon sent off to the County Commissioners reiterating all my points. Getting attention feels good, and I was starting to feel like an ambassador to the swans, believing that we (the swans and me) would win this one. The argument seemed so logical, and yet so downright democratic and friendly, that I decided it was time to appeal directly to the developer.

The Seattle Times once carried a front page story about the greedy image that land developers have among the general public. More and more citizens believe that more and more developers are trashing Puget Sound by building too many oversized projects in inappropriate locations so that available resources no longer fit the community. As everywhere else, developers on San Juan Island don’t feel they’re getting a fair shake. How can the concept of real estate development be negative when everybody needs a house to live in needs places to shop and work? If Rodney Dangerfield’s “I get no respect” character  had a profession, it would real estate developer.

A recent hour spent with one of the Swan Valley developers at a local doughnut shop proved to be the least satisfying experience of my Swan Valley Odyssey. I accepted his invitation hoping that we would arrive at a common high ground based on our mutual bottom line of swan protection. Why else would he be building his expensive fence? Hadn’t he just gotten insufficient information about swan behavior? Wouldn’t he proceed more conservatively now that expert doubt was cast upon his fence?

I was never able to discern what he felt in his heart about protecting swans. Instead, he answered my questions by reaffirming that his plat was “a quality development” that went “far beyond the minimum to protect swans”. When I asked about clustering the houses into one or two areas with the rest left as common ground, he countered by asserting he’d never “condominianize” his development and “would you want to live in cluster housing if you had the choice?”

I answered by asking what he would do if the County demanded cluster housing. He said he might comply, but might “be forced to forgo the permit process and open up the wetlands as a private duck-hunting club.” It was an annoying answer, a cute good old boy answer, implying that, in his own mind, the people wishing to protect swans would be held personally accountable for what he, himself, might “be forced” to do to his wetlands. I later learned he’d used the same threat on both the County planner and the Swan expert.

There was to be no common ground between us. Land development was this man’s career, and he radiated the self-image of a successful businessman in step with solving the problems of growth while turning a tidy profit. But I could not appreciate the fine points of his game. Even our language was at variance. He defined the site as nothing but a long plat. I referred to the same piece of earth as a swan habitat. I sipped my decaf while listening to him rhapsodize over “quality units”. He sipped his decaf to hear me enthuse about “swan metabolism”.

We never shifted gears, never got close to discussing philosophical questions like: Is progress, growth? Must a developer be a land steward? When is enough, enough? Civility prevailed. We shook hands in parting, agreeing that we were both glad to hear the other’s point of view.

In San Juan County, the Planning Commission is not the end of the development process. The Board of County Commissioners has the final decision. The three member Board met in June 1991 to hear arguments for and against the Swan Valley Long Plat. They listened to all points of view, and then commenced to read aloud, for the public record, letters from Federal and State officials who were demanding them to protect the swans. They then voted unanimously against the developer’s proposed design. In a rare gesture, they overruled the findings of their own Planning Commission by pushing the property lines a hundred and fifty feet further back from the wetlands. That single alteration would almost surely force the developers back to the drawing board. And for the first time in San Juan County, covenants were added against herbicide and pesticide use by all future landowners. Construction would only be allowed between May and October when the swan’s are gone. Finally, the Commissioners ruled that the developer must add a modest budget for a land steward, to study the effects of development and hunting on all swan habitat in San Juan County.

25 Years have passed since the commissioner’s made their decision to protect the swans. Local resentment against the GMA has only increased as more people move here. Land values have escalated, then subsided as the global economy ebbed, then escalated again. No group has yet incorporated to advocate the heretical idea of zero growth in the County, although an increasing numbers of land protectors are building upon the less-explicit dream that developers, contractors, and real estate agents understand that unlimited growth does destroy the quality of life of our increasingly expensive place to live, just as surely as it destroys swan habitat. It seems that these days, at least as much land is being protected, as is being developed.

This winter, 2015, an especially stormy winter makes it seem that more of the island than ever is covered by fresh water. There are as many swans as ever wintering here. But there is still no set regulatory process in place to warn off developers BEFORE they take a huge bank loan to build some future  million dollar development where a few swans or nesting eagles happen to occupy the same turf. There is the story of a local woman who chopped down an eagle tree and simply paid the whopping fine just so she could improve her view by some small increment. A fence has long since gone up around the Swan Valley wetlands, and most of the projected houses have been built, sold, and inhabited. So far, neither the fence nor Swan Valley seems to have altered swan behavior. One day last winter I counted thirty swans on the wetland. Flocks are also visiting new habitats. A neighbor dug a pond two summer’s ago and last winter the first swans over-wintered there. It’s a good sign although bird counters warn us that there are less swans on the island this year than last year. And fewer of them last year than the year before.

This decrease causes me to ponder the land ethic known as “a sense of place.” The thumbnail definition may be expressed this way. We steward the ecosystem we live in, not because it’s a source of capital, but because it is our home: a true and deep extension of all our lives. The term is meant to provide a respectful guide for humans in community, inhabiting the land. Here on San Juan Island, a growing understanding of the phrase can sometimes be glimpsed as the basis for new building regulations, citizen subsidies to buy common zones, larger conservation easements, alternative energy development, and other earthbound inclinations we islanders champion to guide our decision-making processes. Because the long-term relationship between ourselves and home is what actually gets decided in each of these examples, we have mostly stopped blaming the conservation of land on the animals and plants who already reside there. When that happens, we also recognize that vulnerable habitats, vulnerable species, and our own vulnerable aspirations for quality of life are inextricably linked. We are, all of us, co-dependent migrants upon the land. Future generations, both humans and swans, deserve as much.


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