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San Juan Initiative

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The San Juan Initiative was a public-private partnership to identify new regulatory and voluntary measures that would improve the marine ecosystem of San Juan County, an archipelago in Puget Sound, Washington that has more coastline than any other county in United States.

This community-based initiative operated from 2006 to 2009 and chose to focus its limited resources on the shoreline environment which had been identified as a concern of high priority. It examined land-use policies, permitting, and building practices in June 2008 report, “An Assessment of Ecosystem Protection: What’s Working, What’s Not.”

The initiative was committed to supporting community values and respecting the rights of property owners. It received a high degree of cooperation from land owners and members of the construction industry. In drafting solutions, the initiative continued to narrow its efforts and focused on shoreline vegetation and erosion problems.

Although the initiative ended in 2009, it enjoyed broad community support and received state recognition as a pilot project to implement ecosystem-based management on a community scale.

MEBM Attributes

  • Scale: Attention to the ecosystem of the near-shore environment.
  • Balance/Integration: Development of a multifaceted series of recommendations encompassing regulatory, education and voluntary efforts to enhance resource protection.
  • Collaboration: Emphasis on having the community define shared concerns and reach consensus to put forward solutions.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of the San Juan Initiative was to improve ecosystem protection in San Juan County in a manner that supported community prosperity, built local capacity for ecosystem protection, and served as a pilot for the rest of Puget Sound.


The initiative set out to accomplish two goals:

  • Assess the effectiveness of programs aimed at protecting the shoreline.
  • Recommend ways to improve protection in a manner that supports other community interests and respects the rights of property owners.

Key Parties

Lead Organizations


  • San Juan County Council
  • Shared Strategy for Puget Sound, Puget Sound Partnership


  • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

Key Parties


  • Nature Conservancy
  • Salmon Recovery Funding Board
  • Bullitt Foundation
  • Surfrider Foundation
  • Community Salmon Fund

Other Partners

  • Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • Washington Department of Ecology
  • Washington Department of Natural Resources
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife
  • Trust for Public Lands
  • NOAA Fisheries
  • San Juan Island National Historical Park
  • Tulalip Tribes


  • Land owners
  • Building trades (architects, engineers, builders)
  • Marinaowners
  • Real estate agents
  • Environmentalists
  • Citizens



Program Structure

The San Juan Initiative began as a partnership between the San Juan County Council and Shared Strategy for Puget Sound, a non-governmental organization concerned with salmon recovery in the region. The Puget Sound Partnership eventually assumed the management role of Shared Strategy and adopted the San Juan Initiative as a pilot project.

Policy Group

The San Juan Initiative was governed by a Policy Group. Eleven of the twenty-two members were local residents appointed by the San Juan County Council and included builders, environmentalists, land owners, marina owners and real estate agents. The other members were drawn from federal and state agencies and Native American tribes with resource management responsibilities on the islands.

Advisory Committees

The Technical Advisory Committee and the Science Advisory Committee advised the Policy Group:

  • The Science Advisory Committee (SAC) included local and regional scientists and assisted the Policy Group in narrowing the focus of the initiative, suggesting solutions to overcome a lack of resources and time. For instance, the SAC recommended surveying specific representative areas of coastline on three of the most populated islands instead of attempting to survey the 400-mile length of shoreline. The SAC assisted in developing research questions and identifying potentially high-impact human modifications along the shoreline and improvements that would reduce these impacts.
  • A Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) also advised the Policy Group for the Initiative.

Work Teams

In developing solutions to some of the problems identified in its June 2008 report, “An Assessment of Ecosystem Protection: What’s Working, What’s Not,” the Policy Group developed five work teams to expand community engagement. The work teams included four to seven people, who helped brainstorm ideas and provide information from their perspectives and experiences. Their contributions helped establish recommendations that would be supported and were grounded in community values. Work teams were assembled from the following groups of people:

  • Trades people
  • Property owners who were experiencing erosion
  • Property owners with retained shoreline vegetation
  • County planning staff
  • State fish and wildlife staff


Motivations for Initiating Effort

Residents of the San Juan Islands were passionate about their marine ecosystem, but resistant to the idea of programs being implemented by outside authorities. In the 1980s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed a National Marine Sanctuary for the San Juan area, but the idea was dropped due to strong local opposition.

In 1996, a group of diverse citizens formed an advisory body to the San Juan County Council called the Marine Resources Council which continues to offer community input on marine environmental matters.

In 2006, Shared Strategy for Puget Sound, a non-profit focused on the recovery of salmon populations, released a Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan. The plan identified population growth as a major threat to the ecosystem. It found that few attempts had been made to evaluate the effectiveness of laws, incentives and education programs related to resource protection in the region. In addition, the report found that the region lacked a single organization responsible for ecological stewardship and a coordinating structure to ensure that private and public efforts were efficient and effective.

To meet those needs, Governor Chris Gregoire and the state legislature created the Puget Sound Partnership, a community effort of citizens, governments, tribes, scientists and businesses working together to restore and protect Puget Sound  The Partnership was charged with creating a plan for a healthy Puget Sound and coordinating efforts to implement that plan.

At the same time, San Juan County Commissioner Kevin Ranker had been working with government officials and private foundations along the West Coast to start an ecosystem-based management pilot project in the San Juan Islands to implement the recommendations of the U.S. Joint Ocean Commission.

Shared Strategy for Puget Sound and the San Juan County Council decided to work together to create the San Juan Initiative. A memorandum of understanding to manage the initiative jointly was signed in 2006. San Juan County agreed to the initiative, but only if the majority of its funding came from external sources.

As the Puget Sound Partnership became established, it eventually assumed the management role of Shared Strategy and adopted the San Juan Initiative as a pilot project.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The San Juan Islands in the Puget Sound consist of approximately 175 square miles of land and 408 miles of waterfront. At high tide, the archipelago includes 176 islands and reefs. At low tide, that number increases to 743. The islands are in the Salish Sea at the confluence of Canadian and American waters.

In the past, farming, ranching, logging and fishing were the basis of the area’s economy, but in recent years, the tourism industry has greatly increased. About 16,000 people live on the islands throughout the year; however, the population increases dramatically during the tourism season due to thousands of visitors and recreational boaters. Tourists contribute 23 percent of the county’s annual retail sales tax revenues.

The islands have a variety of terrain and marine habitats, including deep water, shallow bays, rocky coastlines and sandy beaches. The endangered Puget Sound Chinook Salmon use the area to feed on their journey to the ocean.

The islands have seen a decline in marine species and habitats. For example, rockfish are no longer abundant and populations of marine birds have diminished. In 2008, the orca whale population declined by 10 percent. A catastrophic loss of eelgrass has been reported in the most heavily visited bays, such as Westcott Bay.


Although threats to the ecosystem are varied, a 2006 study conducted by Shared Strategy of Puget Sound pointed to population growth as a major concern. Shoreline development that continued under existing policies and practices would be highly detrimental to the ecosystem.


Major Strategies

The San Juan Initiative identified gaps and problems in the regulatory, permitting, enforcement and trades practices related to shoreline development and resource maintenance and then recommended community-supported solutions to two areas of concern: erosion and vegetation issues.

The initiative lacked the resources and time to conduct detailed monitoring of ecological conditions in the San Juan Islands and had to narrow its scope for addressing these two concerns.  The Policy Group, working with local and regional environmental managers and scientists, identified the protection of near-shore and terrestrial habitats as the highest priority. The San Juan County Marine Resources Committee completed a San Juan County Marine Stewardship Area Plan which also helped to narrow the focus of the initiative. In addition, community input was solicited through two dozen workshops, formation of the work teams and additional interviews with land owners and builders.

Problem Identification

The San Juan Initiative’s June 2008 report, “An Assessment of Ecosystem Protection: What’s Working, What’s Not” contained the following five main findings:

  • Management programs and the community have made positive improvements during the past 30 years of environmental management and there is a lot to build on.
  • Some of the most sensitive parts of the marine shoreline are being altered and there is a high risk of losing more.
  • There is a lack of accountability to ensure that people and government successfully carry out their responsibilities in a way that results in ecosystem protection.
  • Current regulatory protection programs are turning people off and our education and incentive programs are not meeting the needs of the ecosystem or property owners.
  • There is tremendous opportunity to improve protection of the ecosystem through scientific advancements and the ethic of stewardship within the San Juan community.

Recommendation of Solutions

The San Juan Initiative’s December 2008 report, “Protecting Our Place for Nature and People,” recommended tailoring protection measures to the different ecological qualities of varying stretches of shoreline. It also anticipated that property owners would support increased protections of the environment if their desires for views, access to the shoreline and management of hazards were supported. Key specific recommendations included:

  • Improve and clarify county regulations governing the retention of shoreline trees and ground cover and recognize their important function of maintaining water quality and nutrient inputs.
  • Educate property owners adjacent high-priority bluffs, forage fish, eelgrass or barrier beaches on how to practice good stewardship to preserve ecological functions, using mailings, community workshops, site visits and other means.
  • Change regulations for clearing and grading trees adjacent beaches to focus on retaining trees and ground cover and explicitly require maintenance of existing overhanging vegetation.
  • Discourage installation of hard shore armoring – installation of barriers, bulkheads and large boulders on the beach – by providing financial assistance and education to property owners whose existing homes may be threatened by erosion.
  • Require new homes built adjacent beaches to conform to greater setbacks to reduce the need for shore armoring in the future.
  • Adapt, expand and increase information available in the shoreline property database maintained by the county assessor and available on a Web site.
  • Encourage collaborative relationships among stormwater and planning staff, landscapers, builders, designers, property owners and realtors to allow a full discussion of a property’s ecological issues and building options.
  • Promulgate new standards for bulkheads and other shoreline armoring devices and require inspections before and after shoreline structures are installed.
  • Work with state agencies to implement a code enforcement inspection and monitoring program that periodically inventories the most sensitive shoreline areas to deter and prevent illegal activities.
  • Create a design commission that promotes solutions for sites where standard regulations do not make sense for protecting shoreline resources.

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

The San Juan Initiative recommended development of a monitoring program to assess the effectiveness of its recommendations – including education, regulatory, and voluntary programs – and the mapping of feeder bluffs.

Before ending in 2009, the initiative established the following benchmarks and timelines to measure success:

By December 2010

  • No new bulkheads have been constructed without a permit, and a new soft shore beach project or threatened structure relocation has been completed where appropriate.
  • Seventy-five percent of all exemption and substantial development permits have had post-construction inspections to ensure compliance with permit.
  • Riparian vegetation coverage in the case study areas is unchanged at 88 percent, or sample of residential properties with new homes shows intact buffer vegetation.
  • Twenty properties have received the green stewardship recognition from the Conservation District.
  • Web site is operating and gets 20 hits per month.
  • The Policy Group is reconvened and reviews outcomes of monitoring for submission of report to County Council, Puget Sound Partnership, and other state and federal agency partners.

By December 2012

  • Newly installed permit tracking system in the county planning department has the capacity to effectively search and track shoreline permits.
  • State Department of Fish and Wildlife and county planning department have a way to cross reference state and county permits.
  • No new bulkheads have been constructed since the end of 2010 without a permit.
  • Post construction inspections are occurring 75 percent of the time for shoreline permits and shoreline exemptions.
  • Fifty properties have received the technical assistance from the conservation district for shoreline issues.
  • Surveys of builders, property owners, and county staff show that they feel their collective efforts are working to successfully develop and maintain properties in a manner that protects ecosystem functions and promotes community, business, and government stewardship.
  • New science showing links between shoreline processes and human actions is being used by planners and policy makers.
  • The Policy Group is reconvened and reviews outcomes of monitoring in a report to the San Juan County Council and Puget Sound Partnership.


Community Consensus

The San Juan Initiative developed community consensus about the importance of protecting the near-shore ecosystem and recommended measures to reduce the impacts of shoreline development. It involved builders, land owners and real estate professionals whose individual decisions greatly affected the shoreline environment.

Information Gathering

The initiative proceeded amidst a lack of information on the San Juan Islands ecosystem, but its surveys of shoreline areas developed new information that will be useful to the community, such as a finding that 26 percent of docks and 30 percent of mooring buoys had been placed in areas of eelgrass; shoreline development led to an average vegetation loss of 25 percent per parcel; and areas in which fish may spawn had been covered by extensive beach armoring.


The initiative modeled the application of ecosystem-based management principles to a small, community setting. Members of the Policy Group spent time at the outset learning about ecosystem-based management and how it differs from previous resource management strategies.


Factors Facilitating Progress

The following facilitating factors also are listed in the “Key Steps” document issued by the San Juan Initiative:

  • Strong Local Leadership: Kevin Ranker, the County Council member, provided leadership and support that was critical to the creation of the San Juan Initiative. Ranker’s vision excited local leaders and kept them engaged, particularly during the early stage of the initiative.
  • Regional Connections: The involvement of a regional organization, Shared Strategy for Puget Sound, helped to highlight the significance of the project and gave local people a sense that their input could matter to the rest of Puget Sound, as well as in San Juan County.
  • Outside Funding: External financial support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation gave the county and others confidence that the initiative would not be a financial burden and facilitated the raising of additional external support.
  • Building on Past Work: The completion of a Marine Stewardship Area Plan by the San Juan County Marine Resource Committee provided a critical foundation upon which to build the initiative.
  • Identifying Shared Concerns Among Three Perspectives: The initiative developed its reports from the perspectives of scientists, property owners and program managers who all used different language, but often addressed the same concern.
  • Role of the Science Advisory Committee (SAC): The SAC was pivotal in helping design the overall approach of the protection assessment. A mix of regional and local scientists was useful in framing questions that would be relevant to the larger scientific community in Puget Sound.

Additionally, the 2008 report of the San Juan Initiative, “Protecting Our Place for Nature and People,” listed additional facilitating factors:

  • Strong and Balanced Regional and Community Representation: The San Juan County Council selected local members of the Policy Group to provide credibility who were strong advocates, but who worked well together.
  • Strong Support by the San Juan County Council: Consistent interest and support from the San Juan County Council gave the initiative local credibility and increased community interest.



The following challenges are listed in a “Key Steps” document that was issued by the San Juan Initiative in December 2009 to provide information to resource conservation practitioners interested in conducting similar initiatives:

  • Concerns about Local Control: There was criticism that the San Juan Initiative was created without community input and would duplicate existing efforts and sap limited funding that otherwise would be available to local groups engaged in resource protection. The credibility of the Policy Group, which included local citizens, and its commitment to building local capacity for ecosystem protection helped diffuse these concerns.
  • Lack of Baseline Data: The Policy Group questioned whether existing data could present a clear picture of the current status of key ecosystem functions and whether they were improving or declining.
  • Limitations in Resources: Policy Group members were concerned that to develop an understanding of the ecosystem, the initiative would need to assess every part of it. But limitations in money, time and baseline information would not allow for such an assessment. Narrowing the scope of the initiative was necessary.


Lessons Learned

The San Juan Initiative listed the following five overarching lessons for resource conservation practitioners to consider in its “Key Steps” document:

  • Without baseline and trend information, it is difficult for people to believe that their personal choices make a difference.
  • To determine the effectiveness of resource protection practices and policies, the initiative held separate meetings with groups of interested parties – scientists, landowners, development professionals, and government officials. The assessments from each group were integrated to refine overall findings, provide insights into the effectiveness of resource protection efforts, and draw relationships helpful in identifying solutions.
  • A holistic view was required to evaluate the effectiveness of resource protection efforts, and required examining regulations, incentives and education efforts across three scales -- countywide, shoreline reach and individual parcel. The initiative found that if property owners found programs did not make sense, were confusing, or significantly inhibited the basic interests of property owners, ecosystem outcomes were diminished.
  • A smaller scope of work that could be advanced and implemented was preferred over a broader scope of work. At each stage of the initiative, the Policy Group focused on key elements to advance to the next stage.
  • The diversity of perspectives, responsibilities and experiences of the members of the Policy Group was essential to its success. Members brought their interests to the group, but did not fall back on hardened positions. They were often able to reach agreement quickly. The group was focused on creating solutions, and staff and co-chairpersons were committed to facilitation and consensus-building.


Website Links

San Juan Initiative:

Puget Sound Partnership:

Shared Strategy for Puget Sound:

San Juan County Council: