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Fair Thee Well

  • Written by Janet Thomas

Earlier this month I attended the Governor’s SRKW Task Force meeting in Wenatchee. This past week I was at the Orca Relief booth at the San Juan County Fair. Hands down, the county fair was far and away the most inspiring.

There were about 40 members of the Task Force in attendance in Wenatchee—and a large crowd of concerned citizens. During the Task Force proceedings, the administrative and bureaucratic processes came first, opinions came second, science came third, and passion and commitment was sporadic—until the public comment period.

The Task Force meeting started at 9 am and the public comment period, the last thing on the agenda, started at 3 pm. A long-experienced policy person from Washington D.C., who was in attendance as a visitor, told me this was planning-as-usual—put the visitors last on the agenda and hopefully a bunch of them will go away.

Not this time.

The “visitor” portion of the meeting was the most edifying as well as inspiring. It was complete with both science and passion, commitment and wisdom. One young Native American man spoke his thoughts most succinctly when he addressed the Task Force: “I am not your visitor,’ he said to them. “It is you who are the visitors.” Another visitor, an employee with the Army Corps of Engineers, slapped down a pile of studies on the table. “Read the science,” was his outspoken message. His frustration at the lack of deep knowledge amongst the experts around the table was palpable. And, as it is the way of the world these days, the young people who spoke were eloquent and passionate about saving life on the planet.

Earlier in the day, the Task Force divided into three groups and each was informed about the findings of the three working groups: salmon recovery, vessel impact and contaminants. The facilitators were effective in “facilitation” but their lack of knowledge regarding the issues resulted in too many notes on the display boards that were far off the scientific path.

At the very onset of the meeting, co-chair Stephanie Solien and Governor Inslee, via a phone call, encouraged the Task Force to put aside their personal interests and focus on the survival of the Southern Residents. But as the day unfolded, the money factor kept raising its ugly head with opinions disguised as facts. Too many opinions were given serious attention without verification. It was a dizzying display of unfortunate ignorance and misleading “expertise.” Once again, I heard people who know better saying that “vessel noise has little impact” on the Southern Residents. The science could not be further from this “truth.”

There are conflicts of interests (aka whale-watching industry aficionados) at the Task Force table that are getting too much attention. In scientific study after study, noise and disturbance are shown to have a major impact on the ability of the Southern Resident orca whales to find food, to communicate, to navigate, to rest and to socialize—all of which they need for survival. Yes, the SRKWs need more salmon. Yes, they need cleaner waters. In the meantime, let’s get out of their way so they can access available food and inhabit their core critical habitat. This vital information continues to be overlooked by those who know better.

The SRKWs are dramatically unique amongst the orcas in the oceans of the world. And we are their biggest invasive species. Saving our Southern Resident neighbors reflects whether or not we will be able to save ourselves. Human hubris is one of the biggest tragedies we are living within as eco-system after eco-system is destroyed on our behalf. This was all-too in evidence at the Governor’s SRKW Task Force meeting.

It was a different story at the San Juan County Fair. Tears, heartbreak, loss, concern and “What can I do?” was the unfolding story. Many locals have watched over the years as the Southern Residents are chased and harassed away from being at home in their home waters.

As I sat for four days at the Orca Relief booth, I was deeply moved by the streaming concern expressed and the many individual stories of connection to, and grief about, our Southern Resident neighbors. So many of us have personal experiences with them that go back decades and generations. So many of us had no idea that the Southern Residents would become so exploited in so many ways. More than 240 people signed cards supporting a Whale Protection Zone that will be delivered to Governor Inslee.

It was an emotional time at the fair in other ways, too. In the mid-90s, I was County Fair Manager, and one day, I had a visitor. It was Larry Tuller and he was coming home to the island to die. He had AIDS, and in those days, there was no other recourse. Larry and his mom, Ev Tuller, had a passion for fabric art and Larry wanted to leave a gift to the fair. He created the beautiful banners that hang at each end of the main building. It was his last creative gift.

His death resulted in another great gift. I went to the memorial service for Larry and it was conducted by Rev. West Davis who spoke eloquently and passionately about Larry and all victims of AIDS, and about the gift of life and our obligation to live fully and selflessly. It was so moving that I was able to finally—after too much negative ritual in my childhood—make friends with Christianity—real Christianity.

So, there I was, sitting at the Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance booth at the county fair, surrounded by memories and “present-ries” (I know, I know, there is no such word. But maybe there should be.) I thought back on when there was an extra ferry offered at the end of the fair to take the animals brought from other islands back home safely. I remember when there were Depot Chairs on all the islands who would bring over their island neighbor entries to Friday Harbor. I remember when musicians from all the islands were invited over to play at the fair.

A surprise that I don’t remember was the existence of a “Peoples’ Choice” award to a non-profit booth. When fair staff came to tell us that the ORCA booth was the recipient of the “Otterly Superb Peoples’ Choice” award this year, I was stunned. And immensely grateful to every person who voted for the Southern Resident orca whales.

Yes, it was a good county fair this year—especially the Rock ‘n Roll end to the days—including the Seattle Symphony’s contribution. The only thing missing was a true sense of community between all our islands in San Juan County.

The Governor’s SRKW Task Force meets next on Tuesday, August 28th in Anacortes at the Swinomish Casino and Lodge from 10 am to 5pm. I am assuming that public comment will once again be towards the end of the day. I’m hoping there will be a good crowd of concerned Southern Resident-lovers from our San Juan County community.

As the fair ended, I was left with one other memory—from when the Tibetan Buddhist monks created a grain-by-grain sand mandala at the San Juan County Fair. At the end of the fair, it was swept up in prayers for all sentient beings and there was a happy procession to Jackson’s Beach where the sands were cast into the waters of the Salish Sea.

May our Southern Resident neighbors be free!


Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 27 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."

Last modified onMonday, 20 August 2018 17:45

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