Feature photo: The view from Cypress Island.

Seattle has made efforts to combine growth with green living, but a few pristine places in the Puget Sound are very different, with a plan for no growth whatsoever.  And that’s a good thing. 

I just visited one place, Cypress Island in the San Juan Islands, returning to a more natural setting: No loggers anymore, a declining number of residents, and fewer projects that could damage conditions for native fauna and flora.  Stewards are not seeking much beyond recreational use, and are even welcoming negative growth, in other words, a focus on restoration and recovery. 

Visiting Cypress Island

My wife and I won a silent auction item at the annual gala of the Washington Environmental Council (WEC) to visit this relatively pristine island in the San Juan Islands, with no bridges or public ferry services to take us there.  The private charter company Island Express donated our voyage from Anacortes to Cypress Island and back, to support the environmental causes promoted by WEC. 

On the San Juan Islands’ fifth largest island among hundreds, we enjoyed the company and instruction of Paul McFarland and John Gamon, dedicated, career land stewardship experts at the Washington Department of Natural Resources.  We learned some priorities of the DNR, which helps to manage the resources of most of the island. 

Paul McFarland and John Gamon, of the Washington Department of Natural Resources on Cypress Island.

The Resource Exploitation that Isn’t Happening

Cypress Island hosts the San Juan Islands’ largest Natural Resources Conservation Area (NRCA), and also extensive Natural Area Preserves (NAP), both protecting the best remaining examples of rare plant and animal habitat. It contains extensive undeveloped shorelines and uplands, with the Cypress Island Aquatic Reserve protected.  But some of its protections, particularly of marine life, exist only since 2007, so there’s still lots of restoration work to do. 

On our hike, Mr. McFarland, the Northwest Region’s Natural Areas Manager, explained that Cypress Island is an appropriate site for conservation due to pristine “balds” (exposed native, soft, clumpy grass-and-moss meadows between forest groves). These may be primary nesting areas for federally protected species, including the marbled murrelet, a robin-sized sea bird that received a state plan for protection in recent weeks. Even before logging, some of the island’s unique characteristics were in the openings of magnificent Douglas fir groves, not in the more common fir groves themselves.  These meadows and clearings are rare examples of grasslands underlain by basalt bedrock, and the state’s only protected low-elevation serpentine forest (with tougher and more shallow soils, benefiting some rugged native plants over others).

Miguel Perez-Gibson of Washington Environmental Council, in a Cypress Island forest reclaiming a manmade structure of no historical significance.

The steep island topography provided us with many vistas of the San Juan Islands, mainland Washington, and the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges.  You get an outstanding sense of how magnificent the Pacific Northwest coastline must have been before the arrival of millions of people.  It is still stunning.

Cypress Island was one of the first natural areas to receive conservation status following creation of Washington State’s Natural Resources Conservation Areas Act.  Washington didn’t protect many old-growth forests till the 1980’s, so we could see the broad stumps of ancient trees, but frequently with mature trees thankfully taking their places and even growing on top of the stumps.  Now, mostly pristine forests are left to flourish, and are impressively recovering. 

Hiking through the forests with dedicated land management experts, the midday hour was not ideal for birding.  So we missed eagles on Eagle Cliff and ducks in Duck Lake.  Pelican Beach is actually named after a type of sailboat, with no pelicans nearby, and perhaps more surprising, the island was misnamed by Captain George Vancouver who mistook juniper for cypress trees.  So no cypress either.  But we did see ravens on grassy peaks, flickers in deep woods, and peaceful forests dominated by Douglas fir, seaside juniper, shore pine, Pacific madrone and Douglas maple.  The complex and sometimes tougher soils supported the biodiversity of the forests, with western red cedar, grand fir, red alder and bigleaf maple all digging in for nutrients. 

We were told that most of the aquatic reserves of the island also are in very good condition with the help of the Department of Natural Resources, which has removed derelict creosote pilings and other structures, and minimized the negative effects of human activity to eelgrass and other aquatic habitats.  We’ll see if nearby commercial and farm fishing operations move on as planned in 2022, after accidents with potentially significant ecological consequences, leaving for the sake of native fauna including ancient salmon runs and the orcas they feed.

What do we need more of?

Frequently, the region’s many benefits from areas designated for something “beyond growth” may be multi-faceted and difficult to define in economic terms.  The Puget Sound needs more urban housing, more public transportation, more support for working wages… but not here on Cypress Island.  Instead, Cypress is restored and well-maintained for more native grasses, more protection of a few old growth groves, more carbon sequestration, and more sea life. 

If you find a way to get to Cypress Island or any of the San Juan’s 200 islands with few or no human inhabitants, you’ll enjoy a different type of enrichment that may be difficult to measure in the gross domestic product of the Evergreen State.  But it’s there.  

We arrived to cloudy and blustery conditions at the Pelican Beach campground, but left warmer, in full sunshine at Eagle Harbor.  Thank you, Tina Montgomery and Miguel Perez-Gibson of Washington Environmental Council, for organizing our visit and for all of the work that you do promoting environmental protection

A trail map of Cypress Island and its hiking and camping resources is here.