Whatcom Watch Online
July 2001
Volume 10, Issue 7

Cover Story

Mercury Contamination Threatens Health of Lake Whatcom

Introduction by Tom Pratum

Tom Pratum spent his youth in the Bellingham area, before leaving after graduation from Sehome High to eventually obtain a PhD in chemistry at UC-Berkeley. He has recently returned to Whatcom County after spending the past 15 years in the Seattle area.

Lake Whatcom and its surrounding watershed areas have been used and abused by man for over 150 years. While the relative cleanliness of the lake may still compare favorably with its more polluted urban brethren such as Lake Washington, Lake Whatcom’s multiple use status and relative lack of development regulation bring it into sharp contrast with protected drinking water reservoirs such as Everett’s Spada Lake.

Continuing development pressures, along with analytical findings of high levels of toxic materials, sediments, and fish in the lake have raised alarm bells with local residents who rely on this lake for their drinking water. Many scientists and health officials are similarly alarmed that a continuation of current trends will have dire consequences.

Issues Yet to Be Resolved

In May I had a chance to talk with Jim Johnston who retired on May 31, 2001 from his position as resident fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. At that time, Jim was kind enough to provide his thoughts on Lake Whatcom issues yet to be resolved by this community, its leaders, and state, federal and tribal entities.

He provided us with a wide-ranging response written to a local resident inquiring about the effects of mercury pollution on Lake Whatcom’s fish populations. Last month we published sections pertaining to the evolution of native fish in the lake and various man-made threats to fish survival.

The sections of that message relating to mercury and additional comments on the future of Lake Whatcom, which were not included last month, are presented here.

Part II

by Jim Johnston

Mercury-Related Health Warnings

The full extent of mercury contamination of Lake Whatcom’s fish was released to the public on April 12, 2001 in a Washington State Department of Ecology document co-authored by that agency, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Department of Health.

Dr. David Serdar (state Department of Ecology) was the lead author. He was also the author of the September 1999 state Department of Ecology report that first revealed the high mercury concentrations in smallmouth bass and other contaminants (PCBs, dieldrin, DDE, etc.) in the flesh of other fish species that exceeded federal Environmental Protection Agency’s National Toxics Rule criteria. The results of the September 1999 and April 2001 Department of Ecology studies point to serious levels of contamination in Lake Whatcom’s fish.

Increased Recognition of Mercury’s Toxicity

Mercury is so toxic to life forms that this year the federal Environmental Protection Agency drastically lowered the concentration of mercury in fish tissues they consider harmful to human health. The Environmental Protection Agency’s new criteria for mercury in fish flesh dropped from 0.825 mg/kg (ppm) to 0.3 mg/kg.

That new lower level has yet to be adopted into the EPA National Toxics Rule Criteria, but that action is expected soon (Dave Serdar, toxicologist, Department of Ecology, personal communication). Until 0.3 mg/kg is formally adopted, Washington State Department of Ecology is required by federal law to use the old criteria of 0.825 mg/kg.

Report Used Less Safe Level of Mercury Concentration

That older, less safe level, is used in the Department of Ecology’s 2001 report on mercury in Lake Whatcom fish tissue. While constraints that prevent application of the latest scientific studies regarding mercury may limit what the Department of Ecology can say in their report, it should not restrain actions local public and political bodies can take to protect human health; they should act with urgency to protect human and environmental health using the best and latest scientific studies.

Washington State Department of Health issues “don’t eat certain fish” advisories based upon different criteria than the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Ecology.

The Department of Health bases their criteria upon a consumption rate that takes into consideration the weight of mercury in the fish tissue, the weight of the person eating it, the person’s sex, whether they are pregnant or breast feeding, and then calculates a Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI). The TDI is then put into a graph that compares all of these factors and the public is expected to adjust their intake of contaminated fish accordingly.

How Can Complicated Formulas Be Explained to Public?

The Washington State Department of Health (David McBride, toxicologist, personal communications) has expressed concerns on how complicated formulas and graphs can be communicated to the public in an understandable format. I share his concern.

Unfortunately our county and state health departments are trying to draw too fine a line in the sand: those on one side of the line can eat mercury-laden fish, while those on the other side shouldn’t. The line is probably not even drawn in the correct location.

Mercury Far More Toxic Than Previously Thought

The latest scientific studies from around the world indicate mercury is far more toxic to life than previously thought. That will move the line toward the “don’t eat” side in the future. How many Lake Whatcom mercury-laden fish a person eats must be added to their consumption of mercury-laden canned tuna to figure safe consumption levels.

If you eat a lot of tuna, the line moves toward the “don’t eat” Lake Whatcom fish side. We don’t know if the levels of mercury in the fish of Lake Whatcom are increasing or decreasing.

We Need to Know Source of Contaminants

We won’t know that until we know the source and conduct future tests...tests that could take years to complete. If the mercury concentrations in the flesh of the fish are increasing then the line should definitely move toward the more conservative “don’t eat” side.

The Lake Whatcom mercury-in-fish 2001 study results have caused Whatcom County Health and Washington State Health Departments to issue a fish consumption/human health advisory saying: “Women of child-bearing age and children under six should not eat the bass or the yellow perch from Lake Whatcom.”

No One Should Eat Fish Taken from Lake Whatcom

There are no current plans by either of those agencies to issue health warnings related to other species of fish such as brown bullhead, also known as catfish, which when greater than nine inches in length, also contain high mercury concentrations in the edible flesh.

No health advisory will be issued for crayfish either, even though the largest individuals were also found to contain high mercury levels in edible tissues. Neither agency sees any need to warn men against eating mercury-laden fish.

The line in the sand is too finely drawn. The health warning should have said to the public: “No one should eat fish from Lake Whatcom.” It’s that simple.

Fish and Wildlife Report Due This Summer

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will have a new report out (summer 2001) that also analyzes the mercury in the sample of fish collected in the spring of 2000. This report focuses primarily upon the impacts of mercury on the fish populations, but also discusses related human health issues.

The findings, evaluated against the new EPA proposed National Toxics Rule Criteria of 0.3 mg/kg and the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) human consumption criteria, show that the flesh of the most sought-after fish (smallmouth bass, yellow perch, and brown bullhead and even some crayfish), in the sizes most likely to be kept by anglers, are unsafe for human consumption, especially by pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants.

Fish Are Indicators of Lake’s Health

Lake Whatcom’s fish, particularly the largest smallmouth bass, are good indicators of just how widespread mercury is throughout Lake Whatcom’s three distinct basins. Bass in basin three contain the highest concentrations of mercury found in the fish of Lake Whatcom.

Remember Dave Serdar’s report (Whatcom Watch, October/November 1999, page 1) showing that Austin Creek had the highest mercury levels of any sampled tributary flowing into Lake Whatcom during the fall sampling.

Basin three, the largest and deepest basin in the lake, is most likely being polluted by one or more of the following:

1. Tributaries carrying mercury from suspected or unknown sources into the lake,

2. Airborne local industrial smokestack gas releases or gases from hog fuel burners,

3. Contents in old landfills in the watershed (see “Y Road Dump Leaves Questionable Legacy” Whatcom Watch, June 2001, page 15),

4. Urban stream run-off.

Most Likely Origins of Mercury in Waterways Identified

The Environmental Protection Agency in their 1992 report identified these types of sources as the most likely origins of mercury contaminating U.S. waterways. These types of sources are most frequently related to coal fired electrical generation plants, publicly owned treatment works, paper mills using chlorine, and municipal incinerators.

The concentrations of mercury found this past year in Lake Whatcom’s larger, angler- preferred smallmouth bass, exceeded concentrations found in fish from all of the most polluted waterways in the United States (based on EPA, 1992, Volume I page 68). That is especially true of the smallmouth bass sampled at the mouth of Austin Creek (Sudden Valley).

Lake Whatcom Bass Have High Concentrations of Mercury

Lake Whatcom’s smallmouth bass samples had a mean total mercury concentration of 0.49 mg/kg. The average mercury concentration in smallmouth bass sampled during the 1992 nationwide survey of 383 sites (314 of which were heavily polluted industrial, agricultural and urban sites) was 0.34 mg/kg.

None of the categories of polluters (superfund sites, paper mills using chlorine, refineries, wood preservers, agriculture, industrial/urban sites, etc.) had mean concentrations of mercury in bass that were higher than Lake Whatcom’s.

A recent Environmental Protection Agency publication, “The National Survey of Mercury Concentrations in Fish” (1999), shows the results of additional mercury in fish tissues sampling across the U.S.

The smallmouth bass samples from Lake Whatcom taken in the spring of 2000 had a mean total mercury concentration of 0.49 mg/kg, range 0.10 to 1.84 mg/kg, which was considerably higher than the average of weighted means (0.37 mg/kg) reported for the species by Environmental Protection Agency.

Mercury Accumlation in Edible Fish
Smallmouth Bass
Contain mercury in their edible tissues that exceed the proposed federal EPA National Toxics Rule criteria of 0.3 mg/kg (ppm) for human consumption.
Exceeded 0.5 mg/kg
Exceeded 1.0 mg/kg.
Exceeded 1.8 mg/kg.
Fish greater than 11 inches were most likely to exceed 0.3 mg/kg.
Yellow Perch
Exceeded 0.3 mg/kg EPA limit for mercury.
Exceeded 0.5 mg/kg.
Fish greater than 9.75 inches were most likely to exceed 0.3 mg/kg.
Brown Bullhead
Exceeded 0.3 mg/kg EPA limit for mercury.
Fish greater than 11.5 inches were most likely to exceed 0.3 mg/kg.
Exceeded 0.3 mg/kg EPA limit for mercury.
Exceeded 0.5 mg/kg.
Exceeded EPA limit for mercury.
Exceeded EPA limit for mercury.

*Given the filter feeding behavior of kokanee on small zooplankton and not crayfish or other fish, they would not be expected to contain mercury concentrations in their tissue that would exceed EPA criteria for human consumption. However, Dr. Serdar, Department of Ecology, in his 1999 report on contaminants in the edible flesh of Lake Whatcom fish reported levels of PCBs in kokanee exceeded the EPA National Toxics Rule Criteria for human consumption.

Lake Whatcom fish collected in the year 2000 were not analyzed for PCB contamination even though Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife requested a PCB analysis of fish flesh. Washington Department of Health wanted only a mercury analysis of edible fish flesh conducted. The fish tissue samples collected in the year 2000 have been archived at Department of Ecology and can be run for PCBs if money is made available. The samples have a shelf-life of one year and will be discarded this year if not analyzed.

**The low concentrations of mercury found in the flesh of the cutthroat are probably due to the lack of large cutthroat in the sample. The sample was to have been comprised of 30 fish greater than 12 inches. Only two fish could be captured that exceeded 12 inches. The smaller-than-desired cutthroat trout were predominantly age one (20 percent) and two (70 percent) and less than eight inches in length. This size of cutthroat has often just left their home tributary and entered the lake to feed, reducing their exposure time to mercury. Their diet is primarily macro invertebrates, not crayfish or other species of fish; that shift occurs after they exceed 12 inches.

Bioaccumulation of mercury has been shown to accelerate once a fish becomes a predator on other fish. The native cutthroat population of Lake Whatcom is in the process of becoming extinct (see Part I of this article in Whatcom Watch, June 2001, page 1). Fewer and fewer spawning-size fish (greater than 12-inches) are seen each year in the lake’s tributaries. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife fishing regulations for cutthroat requires that they all be released unharmed.

We Do Not Have a Healthy, Clean Lake

The Environmental Protection Agency will place Lake Whatcom on its 303(d) list as an impaired water body due to mercury, PCBs, dieldrin, DDE, and other contaminates sometime in the near future. Lake Whatcom is already on the 303(d) list due to oxygen depletion problems.

Contrary to everything you hear on the city-controlled Channel 10, or read in the city’s water-news publications, we do not have a healthy, clean lake....and that includes all three basins.

Until a Bellingham Herald editorial revealed it on April 23, 2001, we were not informed that the city had information showing Lake Whatcom waters have tested positive for mercury on three occasions since 1995; the 1995 sample was two times higher than the federal Environmental Protection Agency standard for safe, treated, drinking water.

Why Weren’t Residents Who Drink Water Warned?

Were any of the 250 residents around Lake Whatcom who draw untreated drinking water notified by either the city or county health that their lake water was unsafe to drink? The answer is no.

Since 1995 there have been endless reruns on government-controlled Channel 10 about how clean Lake Whatcom is and how safe it is to drink. And there have been several city government water-news publications touting the safety of Lake Whatcom’s waters for human consumption.

Was the April 12, 2001 public briefing by Whatcom County Health, Department of Ecology, and Washington State Fish and Wildlife on the health advisory to not eat certain fish from Lake Whatcom ever shown on the city’s Channel 10? No, even though it was recorded on film by their staff. Was it ever covered in the city government news publications? No.

Does County Health Downplay Danger of Mercury In Fish?

Our Whatcom County Health Department has told the public and local political leaders that the mercury concentrations in the fish of Lake Whatcom fall between the state and national averages....that is far from correct. County health also said all fish have mercury, as if that in some way minimizes the importance of mercury in Lake Whatcom’s fish.

The statement that all fish have mercury is not based upon any scientific studies and has never been written or declared by any professional scientist. These irresponsible statements again underscore efforts by county health department to downplay the seriousness of the mercury in Lake Whatcom fish findings.

Unfortunately, there are those who will take comfort in believing there is no problem. Until contamination of our drinking water source is taken seriously there will be little funds or effort directed at finding the source(s) of the mercury and stopping its entry into Lake Whatcom.

Contamination of Drinking Water Source Needs to Be Researched

Determining the Bellingham area source of Lake Whatcom’s mercury won’t be the problem once the search is initiated. The detective work needed to find out how mercury was/is transported to Lake Whatcom has received little agency support to date.

The local office of the Department of Ecology tells people the mercury is naturally occurring in Whatcom County and that is the source of Lake Whatcom’s contamination. That statement is not based upon geological reports or geologist consultations.

It is based upon one sample of fish taken from the lower main stem Nooksack River (not a section that flows into Lake Whatcom). That mercury could have come from one of any number of sources already mentioned.

No Data to Support Such a Claim

The City of Bellingham has tested the diversion waters from the Middle Fork Nooksack River that are destined to enter Lake Whatcom and have not detected mercury. Is the local office of Department of Ecology touting background mercury as the source of mercury contamination, with absolutely no data to support such a claim?

Is it just a way to minimize local concerns over extremely high concentrations of mercury being found in Lake Whatcom’s fish? The Department of Ecology files stored in Olympia contain some of the answers to the question of mercury origins, both in Bellingham Bay and Lake Whatcom.

When Will We Take Our Heads Out of the Sand?

Cleanup must start with looking at all possible sources. There should be no untouchable or unmentionable sacred cows in this search. Taking our heads out of the sand and saying our once clean drinking water source is no longer clean, but we are going to do everything we can to stop it from getting worse—well, that’s a beginning.

It would be much better to have local efforts directed at cleanup and protection rather than have some frustrated citizen, worried about their bathing and drinking water contamination, calling the federal government and asking them to intervene.

You may want to contact the Environmental Protection Agency office in Seattle and request a your own copy of the 1992 Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s National Toxic Substance Screening 1992 reports (for aquatic environments) and the 1999 Environmental Protection Agency report.

The Future

I have always felt that as the fish and wildlife around Lake Whatcom go, so shall go the success or failure of Bellingham to mature into a vibrant city. Those fish and wildlife cannot be preserved without curbing and directing growth, logging and pollution.

Preserving Lake Whatcom and reversing the damages already inflicted on it will require a citizenry with willingness to sacrifice, to pull together for a common good and to have a vision of the future. Interestingly enough, those are the same traits that residents of every city need to possess and employ if their city is to become diversified, intensely alive, inspiring, and environmentally and culturally wonderful to live in.

Successful Cities Have Met Their Particular Challenges

Not all highly successful cities that have received national recognition had a “Lake Whatcom” but virtually all had what seemed like Lake Whatcom: an insurmountable problem, the solution to which ran counter to short-term gains, expediency, or vested interests.

All successful cities met their particular challenge; Seattle did with polluted Lake Washington by forming METRO, Portland did with purchase and isolation of their Bull Run drinking water reservoir, Vancouver, B.C. did with the establishment of Stanley Park and B.C. Place on their industrially polluted waterfront. It’s the same story all across our county. The right mind-set could develop here. I hope it does.

Simple Test: Drop Fish Poison or Valued Keepsake into Water

There is a simple test to ask our community social, political, business, cultural leaders and a random selection of citizens to take that will allow you to predict the future. Have 100 citizens stand beside a stream that flows free and clear, the home of fish that have survived there for 10,000 years, and all that represents.

Have them each bring a fragile $200 keepsake and hold this item in one hand. In their other hand, place a paper bag containing a fish poison which, if 25 of the bags are dropped in the stream, will kill all the fish, and fish will never be able to survive in the stream again.

Have them extend both their arms out over the rocky stream with the fragile, valuable keepsake in one hand and the fate of an irreplaceable resource in the other. Tell them to choose between the items they hold in their hands and drop the one they value least.

I agree, it’s a silly little test, but at some point we all must participate and live amidst the result .

Fire Department Discharges Chemical Near Lake Whatcom

by Erick Bieritz

Erick Bieritz, a mass communications major, has just finished a five-month exchange program at Western Washington University. In the fall, he will return to his home school, Illinois State University.

A chemical discharge in late April during a fire department training exercise in Sudden Valley raised worries among the community. Thanks to the efforts of several citizens and the state Department of Ecology, the fire department is planning to practice in sites less dangerous to the lake watershed in the future.

At around 9 p.m. on April 24, 2001, bath time was ending in the Kingma household in Sudden Valley. As his children dried off and prepared for bed, Keith Kingma looked out a second-story bedroom window and saw a fire truck on North Summit Lane spraying something into the trees and across the street.

The foaming liquid flowed down the street, into a nearby wetland and made its way, in trace amounts, into Lake Whatcom, the source of the Kingmas’ bath water and most of Bellingham’s drinking water.

Foamy Residue from Fire Hydrant Running Down Street

Theresa Kingma returned home at 9:20 p.m. to see a fire truck and ambulance outside her home and was momentarily frightened, reminded of the time a year before when her husband had been taken to the hospital in one. She noticed a foamy residue running down the street from the fire hydrant near her house. She said she didn’t think much of it at the time.

The next day, the Kingmas spoke with Larry Williams, a neighbor who had twice before seen similar washes of foam in streams but had never been able to attribute them to the fire department or anyone else. After calling Whatcom Fire District No. 2, he learned the chemicals had been discharged as part of a training exercise, but he was not satisfied with Fire Chief Dave Ralston’s answer.

“There was a lack of recognition on his part that there was anything wrong with (chemicals) in the wetlands,” Williams said.

Practice Burn on Geneva

Russell Stolzoff, a Geneva resident, echoed Williams’ sentiments when describing a drill in mid-April in which Fire District No. 2 did a “practice burn” on a house on the corner of Fremont and Lakeview streets.

He said they did a good job of announcing the event to the community, but he didn’t realize chemicals would be involved until he saw discolored water running down Fremont towards Lake Whatcom, several blocks away.

“I feel like that’s deceptive,” Stolzoff said.

Chemicals Gradually Build Up in Watershed

Although some experts say the chemicals involved in incidents such as these are mild detergents and foaming agents and are not dangerous in and of themselves, they can gradually build up in the watershed and hurt the lake ecosystem, says Department of Ecology engineer Steve Hood.

The chemicals can, for example, decrease the amount of dissolved oxygen in parts of the lake, which makes it more difficult for fish to survive and upsets the natural ecosystem of the watershed.

Fire District No. 2 rarely uses chemicals in drills, Ralston said. The April 24 drill required the use of about 10 gallons of a mild detergent, what Ralston compared to “car wash soap”, to test out a fire truck compressor that had recently been serviced.

And while the fire department usually uses straight water, the use of chemicals with new compressors allows firefighters to use only 10 to 15 gallons of water in a situation that would require 400 to 500 gallons of “straight” water.

Site in Sudden Valley Near Wetlands

The site near North Summit and High Cliff Circle where the April 24 drill took place meets the required standards for the disposal of chemicals, Hood said. It is an upland area where plants can use some amount of chemicals as fertilizer, and the fire department was simply unaware of the potential danger to the nearby wetland.

“They didn’t think that where they were discharging was a problem,” Hood said.

Ralston agreed that coordination between the fire department and the Department of Ecology was in everyone’s best interests and said that while nothing had yet been formalized, he was planning on working with Hood over the summer to examine new sites.

Timely Reminder of Need to Regulate Discharges

Hood said that the Department of Ecology had been planning to address the issue of fire department drill sites for a while, and that the Sudden Valley incident was a timely reminder of the need to regulate chemical discharges.

Although nothing formal has been agreed upon yet, Hood said he is optimistic about working with the fire districts to find more suitable locations for chemical discharges.

Hood stressed that lake water quality is not just an issue for those who live in the watershed but also for anyone who uses water from Lake Whatcom, be they neighbors, firefighters or engineers.

“I drink water out of it,” he said, “so I think of it as my lake too.”

Lummi Nation Featured in Photographic Exhibit

Individuals from the Lummi Nation, in what is now Whatcom County, Washington, were among those photographed by Edward S. Curtis between 1899 and 1930 as he traveled the North American continent to document lives of more than 80 native tribes.

Over the course of his career, Curtis made thousands of photographs of Native American individuals and lifestyles. His work was immortalized with the publishing of a 20-volume series entitled “The North American Indian.”

As a cross-cultural collaboration, the Lummi Nation and the Whatcom Museum of History and Art will present “Edward S. Curtis, Photographs,” a collection of more than 100 first-generation Curtis images, July 14 through September 30, 2001.

Exhibition on Loan from California

The exhibition, on loan from the Edward S. Curtis Gallery in McCloud, California, will feature special inclusion of Salish images, especially Lummi, as well as original volumes and framed original photogravures from “The North American Indian” including master prints and cyanotypes.

A special gallery devoted only to items from the collection of the Whatcom Museum will further enlighten the viewer with three vintage goldtones and other images taken by Edward S. Curtis and his brother, Asahel Curtis.

Film and Interviews

In addition, one gallery within the exhibition will be converted into a viewing area for the silent 1911 Edward Curtis’ film “In the Land of War Canoes” courtesy of the Burke Museum, Seattle. Visitors can also hear interviews with Edward Curtis’ children, which were conducted by the Edward S. Curtis Gallery. Curtis’ work is known for its artistry as well as for its immeasurable ethnographic value.

Special Programs

Native voices and music add further dimension to the stories. Discussions, videos, dancing and stories will be featured in the following exhibit-related special programs:

• Sunday, Aug. 5, 2 p.m. “The Edward Curtis Photographs: A Native American Perspective.” Lummi Tribal Council member Darrell Hillaire will facilitate as a panel of Native American community leaders assesses the impact of the Edward Curtis photographs for First Nation people.

• Sunday, Aug. 12, 2 p.m. “Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians: A Film by Anne Makepeace.” The Whatcom Museum will show the documentary, “Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians,” produced by Anne Makepeace and aired by PBS in 2001. The film introduces Edward Curtis and his early 20th century photography project. It centers on interviews with Native Americans and others concerning Curtis’ impact, authenticity and ethics.

• Sunday, Sept. 2, 2 p.m. “Different Lenses: The Photography of Edward and Asahel Curtis.” Although Edward Curtis and his brother Asahel were both photographers, their images told vastly different stories. The Whatcom Museum presents a 1996 video by KCTS Channel 9 Television, which documents the lives of these famous brothers. The Whatcom Museum’s permanent collection includes works by both photographers.

• Sunday, Sept. 16, 2 p.m. “Connect With Our Heritage: Lummi Cultural Program.” Members of the Lummi Nation will share their cultural heritage with the Bellingham community. Performances will include the Lummi Tribal School Dancers, Lummi traditional stories and a style show of contemporary Northwest Coast design coats by Roberta Wilson.

First Showing Was in Europe

This exhibition first showed in Europe at the Mus&#egrave;e de L’Elys&#egrave;e, Lausanne, Switzerland and has traveled to many cities throughout Europe. Beginning in 2000, this collection of images has been shown exclusively in association with Native American venues, most recently at the Yakama Nation Cultural Heritage Center in Toppenish, Washington, and at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton, Oregon.

The Whatcom Museum of History and Art features permanent and changing exhibits of regional history and contemporary art, as well as a vast photographic archive. The Museum is also home to the permanent exhibit “First Nations: Northwest Coast People,” and a significant First Nations basket collection.

The four-building campus is located at 121 Prospect Street in Bellingham. Regular museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

For additional information call (360) 676-6981 or log on to www.whatcommuseum.org.

Local History

Maritime Heritage: From Garbage Dump to City Park

This is the twelfth in a series examining Bellingham’s parks. It is based on the book “A History of Bellingham’s Parks,” available at the Whatcom Museum store and Henderson’s Books.

by Aaron Joy

Aaron M. Joy, a sociology graduate of WWU, is employed as the librarian for The Bellingham Herald and enjoys Bellingham history, painting, writing and acting in community theater.

Maritime Heritage Park and Center
Location: Park–W. Holly Street
                 Center–1600 C Street
Area: 10 acres

Led by two Indian guides, Captain Henry Roeder and Russell V. Peabody, traveled by canoe from Seattle to Bellingham Bay, landing at a waterfall surrounded by a heavily timbered area as described to them by Chief Cha-wit-zit of the Lummi Tribe in 1852.

They were on a quest for a heavily timbered site that was convenient to a waterfall that could support a sawmill. The plan was to sell lumber to San Francisco, which had almost been wiped out by fire. But, every place they came to in the Northwest was already inhabited by a mill, except for Bellingham Bay.

Here, with assistance from Lummi people, they built a sawmill and homes for their wives, who were soon to follow. Thus was the formation of Whatcom, the first of four communities that grew up around Bellingham Bay.

Sawmill on Bluff Overlooking Whatcom Creek Falls

The location of the sawmill was on a bluff overlooking a falls near the mouth of the glacier-fed river that emptied into Bellingham Bay. Today, the Prospect Street post office is on the bluff and the river is Whatcom Creek (the falls were renamed “Chief Cha-wit-zit Falls” by the park board in 1980).

Whatcom Creek, once the center of Whatcom, is now the dividing line between Old Town and the rest of downtown. Once the site of a dump, Whatcom Creek is today bordered by the Maritime Heritage Center fish hatchery and the Maritime Heritage Park.

The area that is today the Maritime Heritage Center was the chosen site for a park since the turn of the century, and was often a part of the short-lived and unofficially recognized Whatcom Creek Park and later the Sylvan Park, which both followed the creek.

Whatcom Creek Site Once Public Dump

The area was for many decades the public dump, and was often more famous for its pungent odors than the fact that the natural contours of the land and its convenient location to downtown made it a prime spot for a park. The Weekly World-Herald of February 1907 reported that “often during summer months the water current is not strong enough to remove the wastes” into the bay.

That same article went on to report that Park Commissioner Roland Gamwell, who was integral in the development of Elizabeth Park, believed that the site would someday become the most popular park in the city, a prediction that would not be too far from the truth almost a century later.

From Dump to Sewage Treatment Plant

The site of the Maritime Heritage Center began as a dump and later became a sewage treatment plant. Located on a man-made landfill, the area was a lagoon until the sewage treatment plant was opened in 1947. It was expanded by the addition of a third clarifier in 1960, but continued to be greatly overloaded.

The sewage treatment plant was closed in 1974 with the building of a new plant adjacent to Fairhaven’s Marine Park. Today the center consists of a salmon life-cycle facility, with a building containing office and classroom space for Bellingham Technical College’s marine technology program.

Restoration Plan Created in 1972

In 1972, a restoration program was created by the city to transform 42 acres, bounded by Dupont, Prospect, Champion and D Streets and including about a quarter of a mile of Whatcom Creek and the edge of the Old Town District, into a giant historical park and fish hatchery/interpretive center. The Whatcom Museum building was to be the focal point atop the looming cliff.

The plan was never realized, but aspects of the design would be incorporated into an award-winning 1978 plan by the Whatcom County Interagency Advisory Committee that created a county-wide parks system. Like its predecessor, this plan was never fully realized, but it did lay the foundation for the creation and redesign of many parks, including Maritime Heritage Park.

Maritime Heritage Center and Park Dedicated

Through the public support of these two plans, Maritime Heritage Center and Park were created. On October 25, 1982 both sections of Maritime Heritage were officially dedicated and included a guest appearance by Senator Henry Jackson.

The plan also outlined the expansion of the park through the removal of Citizen’s Dock and the construction of an amphitheater on the cliff below the museum. Both of these events occurred as part of a Greenways-funded renovation project started in 1996, which also helped renovate the rest of the park.

Totem Pole Erected in 1997

As part of the restoration of the park, a 20-foot tall hand-carved Lummi totem pole was erected in 1997, called Xwot’qum Sto’lum. The ceremony included chants for the strength of the pole led by Jewell James and the late Cha-das-ska-dum Which-ta-lum, with music by Swil Kanim. The totem depicts salmon woman, raven bear and three steelhead salmon.

Recently the sculpture “Confluence,” partially in recognition of the new millennium, was installed in the park depicting the prow of a boat slicing through a cascade of water. Seattle sculptor and WWU graduate Gerard Tsutakawa designed the eight-foot-high bronze scupture, which is surrounded by boulders found around Whatcom County.

The sculpture represents the wooden ships of early white settlers that once graced Bellingham Bay, but at the same time recalls the dugout canoes of the local Indian tribes. Tsutakawa’s design was chosen from over 50 submitted in a competition and was funded by the Bellingham Arts Commission and public donations. Tsutakawa’s sculptures already grace Whatcom Community College, St. Joseph Hospital and Safeco Field.

Boulevard Park

Whatcom Land Trust: Protecting the County for Future Generations

by Bob Keller

Bob Keller is a retired professor of history. He has served on the board of directors of the Whatcom Land Trust since 1994. The opinions in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the trust.

The 2000 census confirms and quantifies what most of us, through eyesight and intuition, know is happening in Whatcom County and all over the West: extremely rapid population growth–much greater than anticipated. More human population means more home building.

Nationally, new home construction increased 15 percent last summer, which annually would total nearly a million new starts. And these houses are often twice as spacious as those built thirty years ago.

Whatcom County Could Copy King County or Even Las Vegas

Combine this with the decline of local agriculture, potential profits in real estate speculation, local political reluctance to impose and enforce urban growth boundaries, and the desire to live in a rural setting, and Presto! We have a radical transformation of Whatcom County by 2020, or sooner, copying King, Pierce, Kitsap, and Clark Counties. For more advanced stages of this phenomenon, visit Tucson, Atlanta, Las Vegas or Denver.

Even with the Intalco and Georgia Pacific shutdowns, fast growth is inevitable in Whatcom County short of catastrophe or running out of cheap energy (events that might slow construction but not stop massive human population shifts and migrations).

History indicates that once people begin moving to a more desirable place on the planet, they are not easily deterred. The Whatcom Land Trust is one of several small fingers in the dike against destructive patterns of growth and sprawl. It is a bandage over the larger problem.

Origins of Whatcom Land Trust

In 1983 a group of farsighted citizens met in the basement of Dutch Mothers Restaurant in Lynden. Roger Van Dyken, Hilda Bajema, David Syre, Jim Wynstra, Ron Polinder, Herman Miller and others were primarily concerned with protecting farmland.

The next year, 1984, they created a mechanism, the Whatcom County Land Trust, that embraced a much wider mandate: “To preserve and protect scenic, agricultural and open space lands in Whatcom County for future generations by securing interests in land.”

Ten years later, in 1994, the trust had secured nine conservation easements and two donations of title (outright ownership). It had also helped negotiate a significant land trade in the Chuckanut Mountains.

Between 1995 and 2000, the Whatcom Land Trust acquired nine more easements and twenty-five additional direct donations or grant-funded purchases. During this spurt of growth, the trust helped create six new county parks.

Land Trust Concept Began in New England

Before examining the reasons behind this success, it helps to define “land trust.” The concept began a century ago in New England and has spread across the country until there are now 1,400 such groups, plus the umbrella Land Trust Alliance in Washington, D.C.

The local groups are autonomous, private, non-governmental, nonprofit 501(c)3 organizations with the mission quoted above (the original mission in Whatcom has now been amended to include “wildlife habitat” and “promoting land stewardship”).

Run by a lay board, volunteers, and a very small staff, the Whatcom Land Trust accepts donations and bequests of land, advises property owners on conservation, negotiates land trades such as the large Chuckanut swap of 1992. It may raise money and purchase land outright as at Canyon Lake Creek Community Forest, and it enters into special agreements or covenants called conservation easements.

Covenants Are Called Conservation Easements

An easement is a consensual, contractual relationship wherein an owner retains title to his or her land, but turns over certain limited property rights “in perpetuity” to the trust, such as the right to build roads, subdivide, remove trees, and erect new structures. These self-imposed restrictions need not be absolute.

Most landowners ban clear-cutting while retaining the right to cut firewood, remove “danger trees,” or selectively harvest timber. It’s all negotiable, non-coercive, and ultimately up to the private landowner.

Clarks Point Good Example of Conservation Easement

Perhaps the best example of a local conservation easement is Clarks Point. Doug Clark’s family still owns the land and lives there in four dwellings. Their land is private property, so we request no trespassing, please. But Doug and his wife Peggy signed an easement that prohibits logging, subdividing, shoreline disruption, and commercial uses.

As a result the Clarks Point remains a home for deer, eagles, waterfowl, and other creatures besides the Clark family. For the rest of us, these 78 urban acres are, and will remain, a beautiful sight for sore eyes.

How can we explain the surge and success of the Whatcom Land Trust since 1995? Clarks Point, a high profile transaction with a respected Bellingham family, is part of the answer, as well as easements with ARCO at Cherry Point, cooperation with Trillium and Crown Pacific on forest lands, and the Canyon Lake Creek 2300-acre project in the Deming foothills.

The trust has also successfully raised its profile through newsletters, press releases, and a best-selling book, “Whatcom Places.”

Shift in Social Attitude Gives Bellingham New Mindset

The Land Trust obviously has benefited from a shift in social attitude: new residents who have experienced what happened to land elsewhere, old residents like the Clarks and Polinders who realize they can’t be passive in the face of change, a rising stewardship ethic, environmental education, awareness in government, the popular Greenways program and Conservation Futures Levy–all speak to a different mindset than Bellingham had fifty years ago.

Even with the new language about wildlife and stewardship in its mission statement, even with book and notecard publishing and public forums, the focus of the Land Trust remains narrow–to conserve land. That’s what counts. Everything else is a means to that end.

Land Trust Courts Wide Array of Political Opinions

The trust guards its credibility with a passion: be frugal, have low overhead, be nonpartisan and non-adversarial, shun politics. Be conservative: respect private property rights, use contract law, encourage private landowner initiative and ethics, honor agreements.

The organization counts among its supporters a wide array of political opinions and social philosophies. Some of these people include: Ron Polinder, Skip Richards, Sherilyn Wells, Scott Walker, Craig Cole, Paul Roley, Georgia Gardner, Tom Burton, and Louise Bjornsen.

It has worked closely with Trillium and Crown Pacific, and now has forged over 30 local business partnerships. This is a grassroots organization, not a national bureaucracy such as the Sierra Club or Wilderness Society.

Cooperative Relationship with Trillium

Cooperation with Trillium, a trust business partner, provides an example of benefits that derive from focus on a positive mission rather than political protest and grumbling. Trillium, the Land Trust, and several state agencies negotiated the large Chuckanut land exchange of 1992, which in turn led an option to protect and eventually purchase the Canyon Lake Creek old growth forest in 1998.

David Syre also donated valuable land to the Nesset park and a conservation easement on the Kenny Creek eagle night roost (1996). Trillium has funded improvements at Squires Lake (1996-2001), helped publish “Whatcom Places” (1997), provided match for salmon grants on the Nooksack (1999), and sold land at a low price to add to the Stimpson Nature Reserve (2000).

Past and present Trillium employees such as Ken Hertz, Jean Gorton, Steve Brinn and Bob Libolt serve on trust committees or assist in other ways. Currently Trillium and the Land Trust are negotiating a conservation transfer on Racehorse Creek.

Tax Advantages to Land and Cash Donors

Working with the Land Trust offers several possible tax advantages to landowners and cash donors. The 1990s wealth in electronic technology has been a boon to us, providing generous help from Paul Allen, Doug Walker, the Wilburforce Foundation, and an anonymous benefactor from California.

But, as usual, practice comes down to local people who were the founders and subsequent leaders who have been steady, respected officers of the Whatcom Land Trust board since 1984: Hilda Bajema, Sue Webber, Gordon Scott, Phyllis Graham, Chris Moench, Dick Beardsley, Michael Durbin, Joan Casey, Sharon Digby, Rand Jack, Cindy Klein, Bruce Smith, Wendy Walker, and many others.

Plus bold, visionary people in local government: Shirley Van Zanten, Craig Cole, Pete Kremen, and Roger DeSpain. And in the private sector: Scott Walker, Patty Nelson, David Syre, Ken Hertz, Glen Butler, Jeff Arvin, Sheilagh Brown, and Russ Paul.

The trust did not hire staff until 1996, but since then has been exceptionally fortunate in finding talented employees dedicated to its mission. Thus the Whatcom Land Trust reached its present position. What challenges does it face in the future?

Potential Problems Swirl in Swelling Tide of Migration

First and foremost comes the swelling tide of migration that will put enormous pressure on water sources, air quality, agricultural land, forest land, open land, and ultimately, land conserved “in perpetuity.”

In the long term, only fundamental changes in cultural values and an ingrained land ethic can protect and restore quiet places, clean water, salmon spawning grounds, streams, eagle night roosts, and the sense of human outdoors freedom inherent to the American experience.

We have even more challenges. A wider geographic spread is inevitable; more conservation is needed near Blaine, Birch Bay, Sumas, Everson.

A big lawsuit to break an easement could financially cripple most land trusts. So could a major scandal. Can any group remain free from litigation and stay “squeaky clean?” How much land is enough? Can we tie up too many acres? Agriculture is the most important land resource, and by far the most difficult and costly to preserve.

Future Secure with Proliferation of Land Trusts?

How much can Whatcom Land Trust continue to depend upon volunteers instead of professional staff? How will it monitor and manage 53 properties with 1.75 staff on a small budget, with more land donations coming? More staff means more attention to fund-raising, a royal road to self-serving bureaucracy.

National success brought a proliferation of land trusts. Kitsap County has four, and we now have four groups called “trusts” in Whatcom County and two in Skagit. The San Juan Island Trust, by far the most powerful of local land groups, now has sites in Whatcom and Skagit counties.

At what point do trusts become too small, splintered, competitive, and self-serving? How many trusts does a county need? When do such groups begin to stumble over, if not fight, each other?

Membership Organizations Need Public Support

The public should realize that this is a membership organization needing wide support, not some bank, such as Canada Trust & Savings across the border. Five hundred generous members donate to support staff, spread the word, and promote conservation; 1,000 members would double the clout.

In the long run, meeting these challenges and sustaining the Whatcom Land Trust’s success depends upon each of us, whether we join the organization or not.

Getting Past Our Frontier Conquest Mentality

We might adopt Also Leopold’s land ethic in our daily relationship with land, water, and resources:

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics… Land is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals…whoever owns land has assumed, whether he knows it or not, the divine functions of creating and destroying.” (Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac,” 1948).

Fully moving ourselves to that point, getting past our frontier conquest mentality, I suspect, will require another two generations. Meanwhile, the Whatcom Land Trust will keep applying bandages, and maybe even a few tourniquets.

Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac.”
Wallace Stegner, “The Sense of Place” in Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs.
_____ American Places.
Alan Durning, “This Place on Earth.”
Tony Hiss, “The Sense of Place”
Wendell Berry, Home Economics and other writings.
Stephen Small, Preserving Family Lands.
Timothy Linstrom, “Tax Benefits of Conservation Easements,” Michigan Bar Journal, 79:6 (2000), pp. 690-96.
“Mom’s Marsh,” a San Juan Trust video available at the office of Whatcom Land Trust.
San Juan Preservation Trust, “A Place in the Islands.”
Whatcom Land Trust, “Whatcom Places.”
_____Annual Report, 1999; Five-Year Conservation Agenda, 1999-2004. Call 650-9470 to request these and other publications.
Business Journal, March 2001, pp. 26-27.
Land Trust Alliance Northwest, 3517 NE 45th Steet, Seattle, 98105 (206) 522-3134. Land Trust Alliance can provide ample literature on all aspects of conservation through trusts.

Internet-Based Association Energizes Local Music Scene

by Russ Hugo

The Bellingham Independent Music Association (BIMA) was started by David Weiss in 1995 as an Internet-based listing and outlet for local musicians. It has brought local artists together and helped create a supportive community, which had been lacking in the local music scene.

Whether helping artists with marketing, connections, or distribution, BIMA has been keeping things rolling behind the scenes. Last year Beth Marsau was added to the roster, helping to get the organization officially recognized as a nonprofit organization on May 4, 2000.

In spite of David Weiss’ busy schedule, including board meetings, his own amazingly prolific guitar-based song writing, and performing, we appreciate that he had time to sit down and go over a few things.

Membership Program

Russ Hugo: Reading up on your web site, I see you now offer a membership program. It looks like a great place to start; would you mind going over the program?

David Weiss: Sure. All membership dues go directly to BIMA, the purpose of which is to promote local independent music. Membership is open to anyone. Annual dues are $15 for individuals; $25 for groups and can be mailed payable to BIMA, PO Box 234, Ferndale, WA 98248.

BIMA has several projects and committees that promote local music, including: our web site (www.bima.com) which won a 1996 Mayor’s Arts Award, the MP3.com BIMA compilations series (www.mp3.com/bima) retail and wholesale of local CDs and tapes through various local outlets such as the Community Food Co-op, Bellingham Farmer’s Market, and various holiday festivals.

We also use BIMA funds to create educational opportunities for local musicians. This month BIMA presented a seminar by Chris Knab from the Art Institute of Seattle on the business of music. Anyone can find out more information about the membership program at: www.bima.com/Bellingham_Independent_Music_Association or just by going to bima.com and clicking where it says “Bellingham Independent Music Association.”

Began Selling Used CDs over Internet

Q: It seems like it would take a good amount of motivation to get things up and running. Did anything specifically cause you to realize the need for an independent artist association here in Bellingham?

Weiss: Pure and simple. The Internet. I was hired by Cellophane Square in 1992 to computerize their retail chain with a point of sale and inventory system to keep track of all the new and used CDs. So I learned a lot about music biz both locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.

When the Internet become commercialized in the mid-1990s and when the very first Internet Service Providers (ISPs) became available here in Bellingham, I convinced Cellophane that we should start a web site and sell used CDs over the Internet.

At the same time, I thought it would be a fun project to also start a web site that listed the names of all the local Bellingham bands. Not long after, I started getting calls from more and more musicians asking to be listed, so I kept adding more to the site. As bands began to build their own web sites, I’d simply put a link to their site from BIMA. It’s just been expanding ever since!

Bands Have Self-Released CDs

Q: The scene has changed and fluctuated drastically since 1995. How do you view the current Bellingham scene compared to BIMA’s inception?

Weiss: A lot more bands have self-released CDs now than they did in 1995–that’s the main difference. There’s a huge and diverse music scene in Bellingham, but that hasn’t changed since I was a kid in the 1980s. There are fewer places to play, fewer opportunities for musicians to make money, but more local music than ever before.

Environment, Clean Water Theme

Q: What are some of the compilations you have put together and do you have plans to continue releasing them?

Weiss: So far we have two releases that are essentially “samplers” of the best songs from local releases: BIMA Volume One (acoustic - folk - world - instrumental) and BIMA Volume Two (rock - pop -jazz), available for purchase online at www.mp3.com/bima.

We have plans for Volumes Three, Four, Five, etc. and we are trying to group music of similar genres on each volume. I expect we’ll see all sorts of interesting releases in the future. BIMA is also collaborating with Robyn du Pre of RE Sources on a compilation tentatively called “Voice of the Water” which will feature local music with a theme of clean water and the environment.

It’s being sponsored in part by Soundings of the Planet and will feature artists like myself, Dana Lyons, Dean Evenson, Swil Kanim, Anna Schaad, Karen Fitzgerald, Tim McHugh and a lot of the organic acoustic side of the Bellingham scene.

Samplers Sent to European Radio Stations

Q: Besides the usage of the Internet, it is great to see BIMA make access to music so available, everything from local retail to the Farmer’s Market. Do you have any plans to broaden this scope in the future, maybe something in the vein of radio promotion?

Weiss: Oh, sure. Bellingham got behind BIMA in a big way in the late 1990s, particularly 92.9 KISM (independent rock), 89.3 KUGS (college radio), 91.7 KZAZ (public radio) and they’ve always played local music on a regular basis.

Currently, we are getting e-mails from several European radio stations in the U.K. and Belgium and we’ve been sending them samplers and trying to get them directly connected with the bands and musicians whose music they want to air.

Studied Classical Guitar at WWU

Q: From what I gather, most of the people associated with BIMA are also involved directly with music, whether writing or performing. I would be interested to hear of some of the things you and some of the other members are involved with. Would you mind giving us a background history to your own music?

Weiss: I picked up guitar when I was 15 and loved it so much that I knew wanted to make a career of it. My parents convinced me to go to college and study classical music, so I enrolled at WWU and majored in classical guitar performance.

I started writing my own music about then and got some studio experience at Randy Bachman’s Legend Studio in Lynden when I was 19 or 20. Then I formed a multi-cultural hard-rock band named New Moon Rising (home.earthlink.net/~dccowan/bandhist/newmoon.htm) and toured mostly in Canada (British Columbia, Alberta).

By age 25, I got married and started raising a family and started studying computers to get a “real” job. I got some recording experience down at Bad Animals Studio in Seattle, and decided to release a solo CD of instrumental guitar music and that became my 1999 self-release “Finger Noise” (available at Cellophane Square or online at www.bima.com/david.)

It was a mix of original classical, Spanish, and folk styles. Now I’m working on a follow-up album, which is more of a Latin-meets-Flamenco guitar sound, maybe like Santana-meets-Ottmar Liebert. The new material is me playing my classical guitar as a lead instrument, with an acoustic backup band by some members of the local band Dolemite.

It sounds pretty interesting, because normally the guys in Dolemite play a sort of funk-metal-rap music, like Red Hot Chili Peppers-meets-Rage Against the Machine. But when they play with me it sounds more like Santana’s rhythm section backing up Ottmar Liebert. We’ll be playing at Stuart’s Fringe Festival in August.

Future of Online Music and Promotion

Q: Some feel that the Internet has of late become a battleground of sorts between the few large labels and the many struggling independent artists. MP3.com being bought out and it being one of the largest sources for free music, is one of the larger issues. Of course Napster, Scour, the Gnutella network and other file transfer mediums have taken a hit. Granted, many of these methods of online distribution are not necessarily a benefit for the artist either. Taking into hand the diversity of the possibilities, what do you see as the future for online music and promotion?

Weiss: Chris Knab would be the best person to answer that question, and I’d recommend to anyone interested to visit his site at www.knab.com. But essentially online music and promotion will be an entirely “additional” market model, added to the conventional label/distributor/retail store model.

What that means is that you will have artists who can do well in the online market, but maybe not so well locally or regionally, and the most successful artists will have to do twice the work in order to reach both online and conventional markets. In the end, certain things won’t change: it’s all about the music, and good music will sell.

Bellingham and BIMA

Q: And finally, the way I see it, things are looking up for BIMA, Bellingham and their involvement with each other. As you continue to grow, what do you see for the future of BIMA?

Weiss: The future of BIMA is entirely in the hands of Bellingham’s local musicians and supporters. Maybe I started BIMA, but it doesn’t belong to me any more; it belongs to Bellingham. But my guess is that we are going to see the web site continue to develop, and I’d like to see a permanent BIMA retail space and a mail order business, and see BIMA’s role as a distributor of local music releases expand. Who knows? Right now, I’ve got Santana-Ottmar Liebert on my brain!

Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview.

I wish you and the rest of BIMA the best of luck!


Clean Water Alliance Concerned About Toxins in Lake Whatcom

by Tim Paxton

On Wednesday June 13, an open town meeting, hosted by the Clean Water Alliance, was held at the Majestic. The goal of the evening was to discuss the future of Bellingham’s Lake Whatcom reservoir and potential solutions to its many critical problems.

Two articulate expert speakers presented some background material on Lake Whatcom. Sherilyn Wells, a very knowledgeable, longtime watershed activist and Susan Kane-Ronning, Ph.D., a Bellingham psychologist, spoke about the reservoir.

Lake Whatcom Due to be Listed Again, This Time for Toxins

It is known that the watershed will probably receive 303(d) listings for a new list of toxins such as: PCB’s, Dieldrin, and mercury. Listing under the Clean Water Act 303(d) list means that all current prevention and cleanup practices are failing. Also, all the tributaries of Lake Whatcom are apparently to be listed for sedimentation that has caused the near extinction of native fish in the lake.

All of the above contaminants are directly related to massive urbanization of Lake Whatcom and failure by local and state government to correct the pollution problems.

Zoning Will Allow Another 6000 Homes

In spite of the well-known results of urbanization, Lake Whatcom is zoned for another 6000 homes. The Clean Water Alliance proposes that a temporary moratorium on development be imposed until the county, city and state can study and clean up existing known contaminants, including many probable and possible carcinogens.

Despite numerous public notices and announcements, not one city or county council person was able to attend the town meeting.

Mercury Contamination

Most recently, there is concern over the health advisory listed for mercury contamination of fish in Lake Whatcom. The source(s) of mercury contamination are unknown. The leading suspects for the sources include the largest industrial user of mercury in Whatcom County–Georgia-Pacific. The contamination could be from airborne pollution from mill production or from numerous reported Georgia-Pacific dumpsites near the reservoir.

Another suggested possible source of mercury is from naturally-occurring sources such as local cinnabar deposits or from mining activity in the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River.

The smallmouth bass in Lake Whatcom have levels of poison mercury contamination well over the 0.5 parts per million maximum standard that is used in Washington State.

New Mercury Standards Released

In states such as Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, new mercury standards have been released. These standards are set at 0.05 parts per million.

Some of the larger fish sampled from Lake Whatcom had mercury concentrations of up to 1.8 parts per million. This far exceeds the contamination levels found even in East Coast lakes and waters.

Since the earlier mercury panel hearing was held in a remote location with little publicity, many people requested that a second, better publicized hearing be held. Many questions were unanswered at the previous hearing.

Chemically Synergistic Combinations

Discussed at the town meeting was the fact that the many lake pollutants are considered individually rather than in chemically lethal combinations. For example, it is well known that PCBs and mercury attack the same centers in the brain. So, a contaminated water source with both pollutants (PCBs and mercury) can have a magnified effect for brain damage potential in developing brains.

Dr. Susan Cook, formerly a professor at Western Washington University now living in Winlock, Washington, reported (via telephone) another area of possible concern. This concern is based on research she has done on the potential nutritional effects of some of the metal compounds found in the Lake Whatcom reservoir.

Metallic tin was apparently reported in some water samples in Lake Whatcom. If found in the water, organotin compounds can apparently be toxic in levels measured in parts per trillion. Other possible nutritional effects reported from any potential organotin pollutants include blockage of absorption of micro-nutrients needed by humans.

This would include copper, selenium and iron. Copper deficiencies can lead to heart troubles and strokes. Lack of selenium can affect the body’s ability to fight cancer cells.

Toxic Waste Dumps in Watershed

For years, during the 1960s and 1970s several waste dumps were operated within the Lake Whatcom reservoir. Now capped with dirt and planted with trees, the dumps are literally time bombs with unknown amounts of numerous contaminants.

Aerial photographs of the Y Road dump for example show heavy use in the 1970s. Down slope from the dump, a zone of dead trees can be clearly seen.

It was reported that testing the wells in that area involved drilling deep test wells. Little contamination was reported. What is apparently known is that an impervious layer of clay exists just below the dump level. It is probable that contaminants will be found if shallow test wells are drilled.

Halt to Further Urbanization

The evening at the Majestic continued with group questions and discussions regarding Lake Whatcom. Members of the Clean Water Alliance board again reiterated the need to call a halt to further urbanization until a more scientific base of knowledge is obtained.

A follow-up meeting on Lake Whatcom is to be held on July 18 again at the Majestic from 7-9 p.m. Council members and candidates for this fall’s election are invited to come to the July meeting on the health of our sole drinking water source.

Please mark your calendars and plan to bring a friend to get informed and learn how to take action to protect your watershed.


Butterflies Need Sunny, Sheltered Nectar Gardens

by Susan Taylor

Susan Taylor is co-owner of Wildside Growers & Landscaping. The nursery specializes in Pacific Northwest native wildflowers and shrubs.

Heighten your enjoyment of your outdoor space by inviting butterflies into your garden. Organizing your garden to attract birds and butterflies will give you endless hours of peaceful, relaxing entertainment. A well-planned butterfly garden will provide you the opportunity to observe butterflies grow from eggs to larva (caterpillar) then to pupa and finally emerge from the chrysalis as a beautiful adult butterfly.

Over the past two decades, butterfly populations have been declining as rapid development has obliterated their natural habitat. Turf grass and showy, cultivated species are replacing their larvae- host and nectar-source native plants.

Ornamental Plants Lack Nectar Production

Many ornamental plants have been bred for spectacular double and triple blooms at the expense of nectar production. Although there are non-native plants that provide food and nectar, to help offset this loss and also for very practical advantages, you can use native plants as the foundation of your garden.

Butterfly larvae are herbivores. Each species depends on specific plants for food. Some butterfly species have one specific host plant species that they must utilize. If that particular plant is no longer available, the caterpillar will starve to death.

Larval-Host Plant Provides More than Food

The larval-host plant provides much more than just food; it offers shelter, camouflage, and chemical compounds critical for protection, courtship, and reproduction. Try to incorporate as many host plants as possible in the garden. And adjust to the fact that there will be holes in the leaves.

Butterflies during all stages are very sensitive to pesticides and butterfly gardens must be chemical free zones. A butterfly garden that is limited to nectar plants will draw in butterflies during their adult stage.

Larval-host plants will keep them there throughout all four of their life stages. Look for chrysalis, caterpillars, or eggs during the winter on your host plants. You will be rewarded with the supreme pleasure of watching the chrysalis transform into a beautiful butterfly.

Foundation Plants for Butterfly Garden

The following are good candidates as foundation plants for a butterfly garden:

• Hairy manzanita, Arctostaphylos columbiana, is not only a larval-host to several butterfly species but also a beautiful evergreen shrub. The stems and branches are covered with smooth mahogany-red bark. The foliage is gray-green with urn-shaped, pink flowers. It must have well-drained to dry slightly acid soil with a south or west facing exposure. It will reach heights of 6 to 12 feet.

• Oceanspray, Holidiscus discolor, is very common in our area. It is a great wildlife plant. Butterfly caterpillars use the leaves; the flowers offer nectar, and the birds love the seed. I found a hummingbird nest in the lower branches of one of my Oceanspray plants this spring. The long clusters of creamy white flowers are often pendant under their own weight. It’s a natural addition to the outside borders of a garden.

• Showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, is vital to the survival of the great monarch butterflies. The monarch and milkweed have established a fascinating relationship. The eggs are laid on the leaves, so that the black and green larva can feed on them.

The leaves contain bitter and toxic glucosides, which accumulate in the body. This makes the onarch distasteful to birds. In addition, the flowers provide nectar and butterflies return the favor by acting as the agent of pollination for the plant. The umbel flower arrangement of the milkweed has two-tiered flowers. The upper tier is a five-pointed star curving up and the lower tier is pink petals hanging down.

The plant’s common name refers to the milky substance in the stems. This is a defensive mechanism. The claws of ants will puncture the skin of the stem, releasing the sticky milk, which hardens and traps unwanted insects. Milkweed needs moist soil. It grows three to four feet high and spreads by an underground root system.

Bright, Fragrant Blossoms Attract Butterflies

The color of a nectar plant is not its most important feature. Bright, fragrant blossoms of any color attract butterflies. Most butterflies eat by sucking nectar from flowers with a tube-like mouth part called a proboscis. Flower shape is a very important characteristic in making the nectar available to the butterfly.

Composites are usually good nectar plants. They provide a platform for the butterfly to land on while they drink their nectar. A list of some native nectar plants will help you select some foundation plants for your nectar garden. Select plant species so that your garden has blooming plants for as much of the year as possible. Several of our regional butterflies overwinter as adults.

Locate Garden in Sun, Sheltered from Wind

Locate your butterfly garden in the full sun but sheltered from the wind. Being out of the wind will help the butterfly conserve energy while it eats. Females also seek out larval-host plants near the nectar plants. Put the larval-host plants in the back border of your garden area. Some holes in the leaves will not be noticeable. Design this specialty garden to reflect your garden style be it wildly natural or formal.

There are several enhancements that you should include in your garden.

•Butterflies need water, salt and amino acids. They like mud puddles and pond edges. You can create a watering hole by digging a shallow depression (in a pocket of clay soil is perfect) that you water in the morning and evening. If you have cats, put wet sand in a bird bath.

•Create a south-facing rock pile that is out of the wind. Butterflies spend time each day basking in the sun. They will sit in the sun (on the warm rocks) with their wings spread to warm the blood and flight muscles. Again, if you have a cat, elevate the rock pile.

•Shelter sites are needed to escape wind, rain, and predators. Use some bunch grasses and plants of differing heights.

• Most importantly, provide a comfortable bench for up-close viewing and take the time to enjoy the wilderness in your backyard!

Common Pacific Northwest Butterflies
Butterfly Larval-Host Plants Overwinter
Anise Swallowtail Cow-parsnip, seaside angelica Chrysalis
Western Tiger Swallowtail Big-leaf maple, willow Chrysalis
  serviceberry, hawthorn  
Clodius Parnassian Bleeding Heart  
Pine White Western white pine, Douglas-fir Egg
  hemlock, red-cedar  
Sara Orangetip Cabbage and mustard family plants Chrysalis
Brown Elfin Salal, manzanita, rhododendron Chrysalis
  oceanspray, sedum, kinnikinnik  
Purplish Copper Potentilla  
Spring Azure Dogwood, madrone, hardhack Chrysalis
  manzanita, oceanspray, potentilla  
Silvery Blue Lupine, vetch, clover Chrysalis
Faunus Angelwing Birch, Alder, Willow,  
  Currant, wild rhododendron  
Lorquin’s Admiral Willow, chokecherry, aspen Caterpillar
  oceanspray, cottonwood, hardhack  
Red Admiral Stinging nettle Chrysalis or adult
Painted Lady Thistle, pearly everlasting,  
  stinging nettle, lupine  
Mourning Cloak Cottonwood, willow, birch Adult
  hawthorn, wild rose  
Woodland Skipper Grasses Larva

Nectar-Source Plants

Penstemon many species
Lomatium Desert Parsley
Asclepia speciosa Showy Milkweed
Lonicera ciliosa Orange Honeysuckle
Aquilegia formosa Sitka Columbine
Solidago sp. Goldenrod
Asters all species
Mimulus sp Monkeyflower
Agastache Giant Hyssop
Monarda fistulosa Wild Bergamot
Sedums Stonecrop
Anaphalis marganitacea Pearly Everlasting
Eriophyllum lanatum Oregon Sunshine
Trees and Shrubs:
Philadelphicus lewisii Mock Orange
Rhododendron macrophyllum Pacific Rhododendron
Holidiscus discolor Oceanspray
Crataegus sp. Hawthorn
Cornus sericea Red-twig Dogwood
Oemlera cerasiformis Indian Plum
Arctostaphylos sp. Manzanita & Kinnikinnik
Prunus sp. Cherry
Ceanothus Wild Lilacs
Mahonia sp. Oregon Grape
Spiraea sp. Spirea
Willow sp. Willows
Ribes sanguineum Red-Flowering Currant


Direct Democracy

Limitations on the Initiative and Referendum Process

Editor’s Note: This is the third part in the series on initiatives and referendums in Bellingham and Whatcom County.

by Peter Tassoni

Peter Tassoni recently moved back to western Washington after a ten-year hiatus in Utah. Peter has been active in preservation issues since graduating from the University of Washington in 1988.

State Law Limitations on Direct Legislation

There are legal limits to direct legislation. Washington state law determines the limitations for cities (commission or class) and counties (home charter or commission) based on their classification.

I found the following statutory limitations placed on direct legislation in “Initiative and Referendum Powers of Cities in the State of Washington” provided by the Municipal Research and Services Center. The City of Bellingham is a first-class code city.

The following types of enacted ordinances are not eligible for direct legislation.

1. Ordinances initiated by petition (previous direct legislation),

2. Emergency ordinances necessary for the immediate preservation of public peace, health and safety, which contain a statement of urgency and are passed by unanimous vote of the council,

3. Ordinances providing for local improvement districts,

4. Ordinances appropriating money,

5. Ordinances providing for or approving collective bargaining,

6. Ordinances providing for the compensation of or working conditions of city employees,

7. Ordinances authorizing or repealing the levy of taxes.

As if that weren’t complicated enough, according to the same Municipal Research and Services Center manual, there needs to be a determination between legislation and administrative distinction based on the following two tests:

The first test is “whether the underlying action is legislative or administrative in nature. Only legislative action is eligible for direct legislation action through initiatives or referendums.”

The second test is “whether the power is one which has been granted by the legislature to the corporate authority of the city (that is, the City Council) as a whole.” If it is a power that has been granted to the corporate or legislative authority (City Council), then it is not subject to the powers of initiative and referendum.

Utilizing Two Tests

The courts have utilized two tests in making this determination. “First, actions relating to the subjects of a permanent and general character are usually regarded as legislative matters, and actions taken on subjects of a temporary and special character are usually regarded as administrative matters.

Second, the power to be exercised is legislative in nature if it prescribes a new policy or plan, whereas it is administrative in its nature if it merely pursues a plan already adopted by the legislative body or some power superior to it.”

The courts have determined that the setting is utility rates are not legislative or permanent in nature. This determination pre-empts even sufficient petitions and consequently invalidates the petition.

Local Examples

Tim Paxton wrote “How the City of Bellingham Abused Its Citizens and the Initiative Process” in Whatcom Watch, January 2000, page 1. In this article, he writes, “the Bellingham City Charter has no specific rules for the fair consideration and handling of voter initiatives.” Mr. Paxton went on to note the following in his article:

• Nothing requires the city to set a mutually agreeable ballot title upon filing.

• Nothing requires the city attorney to review the ballot for legalities.

• Nothing requires the city to refrain from filing a lawsuit based on information it may have withheld from the initiative proponents.

• Nothing requires the city to refrain from using the threat of a lawsuit to attempt to extract concessions from initiative proponents.

• Nothing requires the city to refrain from making misleading statements about citizen initiatives.

• Nothing requires the city to refrain from suing an initiative’s proponents before the initiative is voted on.

“The city has many avenues to abuse and misuse the citizen initiative process with your tax dollars,” Paxton writes.

City council member John Watts offered me these thoughts on utility rates recently. “This area is distinctly left up to the local elected legislative body to determine, not the general public. Elected officials are specifically prohibited from interfering with the public processes of initiative and referendum; however, state law and case law do pertain directly.

It is the role of the city attorney to seek to clarify which measures are open to these processes and which are not, and so advise the City Council. It is the law which determines these issues, not popular opinion. It is the courts-job to interpret the law as appropriate and ours to make requests of the courts as needed. It is not realistic to expect to derive all the information applicable to an initiative or referendum from a simple reading of the City Charter. That is a summary document much like an abstract; an overview of guiding rules & principles.”

Drinking Water Initiative

His article chronologically noted the abuses perpetuated by the City of Bellingham during 1999 related to the drinking water initiative. The city attorney, City Council, and mayor took actions that “had the potential effect of undermining support for the ballot measure.” The 1999 drinking water initiative (Proposition One) narrowly failed at the ballot box. The initiative’s failure might be blamed on the city’s interference. It was déjà vu.

Bellingham Art Center

The City of Bellingham actively supported the Bellingham Bay Art Center’s four-million-dollar bond issue by using public funds and staff to persuade voters. The city was found guilty of civic misconduct. It failed to present both sides fairly. The bond initiative failed. Concurrently, there was a successful citizen initiative prohibiting the city council from establishing and building the art center. The art center died.

However, the Levin Warehouse has been refurbished with subsidized apartments, retail space and offices since then with other funds. Its restoration did not provide the fulcrum for downtown revitalization promoted by the city-funded literature.

Hoag Pond

The Hoag Pond controversy related to an arms-length sale and valuation process between the City of Bellingham and one of its employees. The City Council approved vacating the street to facilitate the sale but the mayor vetoed it. The council overruled the mayor’s veto but then rescinded the vacation. The 14-acre property, appraised at $845,000, was withdrawn from consideration. However, the Hoag Pond property was finally purchased for $460,000 with Beyond Greenways money.

Water-Rate Referendum

I arrived in the summer of 2000 and wrote “Why Won’t Georgia-Pacific Water-Rate Referendum Be on the November Ballot” for the October/November 2000 issue of Whatcom Watch. I investigated the legalities of the city’s behavior and the proponent’s intentions.

I concluded that the 2000 Georgia-Pacific water- rate referendum fell under an administrative matter of temporary duration related to setting of utility rates and was deemed inapplicable for a citizen referendum. The citizen referendum was void.

However, if the city were responsive to its electorate and engaged in a fair consideration and handling of all citizen legislation like the county and state are required to do, a lot of effort and antagonism could have been averted.

High-Voltage Power Lines

The successful county citizens initiative 4-90 (limiting high-voltage power lines to industrial corridors) was modified and resubmitted by the proponents, after suggestions from the county auditor’s office to ensure that initiative 4-90 had a fair representation in its wording and intent. Initiative 4-90 was not challenged with declaratory judgments by the county or other meddling behavior recently typical of the City of Bellingham.

Legal Defense Expenses

Before passage by voter approval, the petitioners are responsible for any legal defense related to the petition. The City of Bellingham sued the petitioners on the 1999 drinking water initiative and attempted to sue the 2000 Georgia-Pacific water-rate petitioners in order to get a declaratory judgment.

But once an initiative or referendum passes, like the 1990 high-voltage power line limit or the 1999 infectious waste limit, through either council action or ballot approval, the government entity incurs the responsibility for its legal defense.

The county is responsible for the defense of 1999 infectious waste limit initiative currently in litigation, not the original petitioners. With the passage of I-695, the State of Washington was required to defend the initiative.

Government’s Unfair Advantage

It is inherently unfair for petitioners to defend their right to create direct legislation through the citizen initiative process. Governments have publicly funded resources and publicly funded staff under their direction.

Petitioners are frequently juggling careers and families while attempting to better the community with direct legislation. Our governments should assist the petitioners cooperatively to create legislation that will endure the test of litigation, not squash them under the prodigious government gavel.

Getting any petition, whether an initiative or referendum, to the ballot is not easy. Even if the voters approve the petition, the courts can still throw it out on either procedural or constitutional grounds.

Storm-Water Utility Fee Referendum

Editor’s Note: This article was written before Whatcom Superior court Judge Steven Mura ruled (Friday, June 29) that the the storm-water referendum should not be placed on the ballot. He said that the levy of taxes falls within the legislative authority of the city of Bellingham, which means they are not subject to the referendum process. People for Fair Stormwater Solutions have not decided if they will appeal the ruling.

The Bellingham City Council approved the five dollar per month storm-water utility fee on February 12, 2001 and it took effect on March 1.

Representatives of People for Fair Storm-water Solutions filed a citizen referendum to repeal the ordinance. The petitioners collected twice the required number of 1,559 signatures. A signature is determined to be valid if it is from a registered Whatcom County voter.

Whatcom County Auditor Shirley Forslof determined the petition was sufficient by April 11, 2001. Filing a referendum suspends the ordinance it was filed against until the ballot outcome is determined.

However, the City of Bellingham is still billing and collecting these fees. The petition proponents argue that the fee structure unfairly burdens property owners with parking lots.

Petitioners Back to Court Again

Although the referendum is sufficient, the City Council chose to seek a declaratory judgment on the storm-water referendum’s validity. The city’s position is that the storm-water utility fee is an administrative matter and ineligible for the direct legislation process.

The petitioners refuse to roll over under the city’s threat. Representatives of People for Fair Stormwater Solutions intend to meet the city’s legal staff in Whatcom County Superior Court soon. A judge’s ruling will determine if the referendum is eligible for the ballot or not.

If it is, the city prosecutor gets to write the ballot title and summary information. If the referendum is on the ballot, the city may revert to older ways and distribute propaganda against the petition to affect the vote, but these are controversies brewing on the horizon.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Increased citizenry understanding of direct legislation and its exemptions would create a more knowledgeable and cooperative electorate. We, the voters, would understand our options better.

The City of Bellingham finance director and the Whatcom County auditor could work with the petitioner(s) to prevent poor legislation that won’t stand up under court scrutiny and to craft ballot titles that are a fair representation of the initiative or referendum.

The school district bond format is a good model from which to work, but cooperation in the current adversarial culture takes work.

The electorate employs the government and its legal staff. The legal staff and its opinions should not be used at the sole discretion of the governing agents (whether executive or council) to the detriment of the public. The electorate should not be kept ignorant when the governing agents have access to legal advice, paid through public taxation, while the public must solicit private and often costly legal opinions. Direct legislation was a reaction to a closed system. I think we all, citizens and elected representatives, want an open and fair democratic government, but it is we, the citizens who must work to keep it so.


Statutory limitations placed on direct legislation described in “Initiative and Referendum Powers of Cities in the State of Washington” provided by the Municipal Research and Services Center. This publication is available in the reference section of the Bellingham Public Library

Utility Rates

Does the Storm-Water Referendum Ignore the Law?

by John Watts

Editor’s Note: City Council member John Watts felt that the article by Bill Geyer on the storm-water referendum (Whatcom County Business Pulse, May 2001, page 96) contained statements that were more opinion than fact. Whatcom Watch wanted to print the original article but repeated attempts to reach Mr. Geyer were unsuccessful. He did not return the messages we left on his answering machine. This article expresses John Watts’ personal views as a private citizen and interested party and is not the official position of the Bellingham City Council.

City Has Faced Three Citizen-Backed Actions

The City of Bellingham has recently faced three citizen-backed actions related to its public utilities:

• Proposition One, in 1999, sought to impose water-rate surcharges for the purpose of acquiring land in the Lake Whatcom watershed.

• The Georgia-Pacific water-rate referendum, in 2000, sought to repeal the industrial rates duly set by city council, following the expiration of a 20-year contract between Georgia-Pacific and the city.

• This storm-water referendum, in 2001, seeks to totally eliminate, not reduce, the rates duly adopted by the city council after months of process.

What Proposition One, the Georgia-Pacific water- rate referendum and this storm-water referendum all have in common is that they seek to change utility rates, an area that is distinctly left up to the local elected legislative body for determination, not the general public.

Popular Opinion Does Not Directly Determine These Issues

Although elected officials are prohibited from interfering with the public processes of initiative and referendum, state law and case law do pertain directly. It is the role of the city attorney to seek to clarify which measures are open to these processes and which are not and to so advise the city council.

It is the law which determines these issues, not popular opinion. Moreover, it is the court’s job to interpret the law as appropriate and ours to make requests of the courts as needed.

The city council and the mayor have used declaratory judgments for legal interpretations of the recent initiative and referenda. This is a preventative measure to avoid the expenditure of public funds and energies in defending a potentially bad law from legal challenge.

Three Arguments Applicable to Utility Rate Challenges

Three arguments have repeatedly been found applicable to challenges of utility rates:

• Whether the duly elected legislative body acted reasonably in setting them;

• Whether revenues from legally set rates impact the approved city budget and its ability to deliver required services, and;

• Whether the actions proposed might impact the city’s ability and legal obligations to service related bonds and debts.

All of these arguments appear to support the storm- water ordinance, not the referendum.

Although acknowledged as necessary to comply with law and the goals, as stated in the city’s comprehensive plan, the storm-water rates aren’t likely ever to become a popular issue. As elected representatives, this is exactly the type of decision that city councils need to make from time to time.

Prompt and Fair Resolution

The Bellingham City Council has inherited a situation that requires a prompt and fair resolution. It is simply not acceptable to leave such an unpopular legacy to future councils, whose task would be even more complicated by undue delay.

As Harry Truman said, “the buck stops here.” Necessary and reasonable utility rates are the responsibility of the legislative body, not the populace, to decide.

A comparison of the methodology used in determining the storm-water utility rate and Whatcom County’s existing flood tax (up to 40 percent of Bellingham contributions might be shared for its storm-water projects) could be of interest to those truly interested in fairness.

Rates Based on Actual Impervious Surface Area

The proportion of storm-water rates paid by businesses versus households seems much more equitable than the flood tax, because the storm-water program assesses rates based on the actual impervious surface area, which is widely accepted as the best key environmental indicator of polluted runoff.

This addition of polluted runoff is a big change from previous storm-water regulations, which focused only on flooding and erosion, and explains much of the additional costs required for its implementation.

Flood Taxes Based on Assessed Value

Flood taxes are based on the assessed value of property, but are stepped up only to a maximum of $400,000. For example, a home assessed at between $200,000 and $400,000 is taxed at $90 per year, while larger properties assessed at $400,000 or over are taxed $100 per year. This means a large business pays only $10 per year more than I do!

A storm-water ordinance was first enacted in 1990, but the only fees collected were on new development. These new rates are necessary because the existing developed community needs to bear a fair share of these new costs.

Book Review

Arctic Crossing

A Journey Through the Northwest Passage and Inuit Culture
by Jonathan Waterman
Alfred A. Knopf, 2001, Illustrated
354 pp., hardcover, $29.95
ISBN 0-375-40409-0
Reviewed by Paul Weideman

Kayaking over 2,000 miles across the Arctic’s Northwest Passage, Jonathan Waterman, outdoors-man and writer, navigates a landscape of profound physical and cultural challenge. Chief among his challenges in the narrative is turning long, hard-won miles into interesting reading, and convincing us that his solitary—he calls it hubristic—method of travel offers entry into the Arctic landscape and Inuit culture.

Waterman’s sojourn consists of multiple legs of several hundred miles hugging the coastline of Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. Over successive summers in his Klepper kayak, he completes the stretches, with occasional portages made on skis or by dogsled.

Ethic of an Arctic Traveler

Early in the book, Waterman issues his adventure manifesto: “On the cusp of a new century ruled by machines and technology, I want to do something unequivocal, by myself, something that will leave me satisfied into old age.”

Waterman’s ethic, which provides the book’s framework, is perhaps best described as “adventure asceticism.” He deprives himself of human companionship. For two to three weeks at a time, he sees no one. “Discomfort and isolation can lift you beyond your mere physical being into a state of tolerance, a semblance of natural order,” he writes.

Gore-Tex and Global Positioning Systems

To be sure, he is a modern traveler. Gore-Tex keeps him dry, and a Global Positioning System receiver keeps him from being lost. He eats freeze-dried food. To the Inuit, especially the children, he is something of a novelty. Elders shake their heads upon learning he is not carrying a gun. “A man without a rifle in this country is as good as dead,” one elder tells him, invoking Nanuq, polar bear, sly and dangerous.

Still, with each stroke, he seems to imbue within himself with a persistence to simply carry on. At its root, his ethic underscores a belief that crossing the passage alone and under his own power yields a closer connection to the land, its animals, and its people.

Getting to Know the Inuit

The author’s portraits of the Inuit’s modern lifestyle are intriguing and replete with contrast. We witness beluga whales captured and slaughtered by “the People” (as the Inuit refer to themselves) to provide muktuk, the traditional energy-giving food. In contrast, modern amenities such as snowmobiles, cigarettes, alcohol and processed foods, abundant in the Arctic, have deeply altered traditional Inuit diets and hunting.

Relying heavily on anthropologists who studied and lived with the Inuit in the early 1900s, Waterman charts a trajectory of the fusion, often tragic, between Inuit and European-based cultures.

Whalers in the 19th century introduced an unholy trinity of whiskey, sugar and disease that devastated the Inuit. In more recent years, successive booms of oil exploration stirred waves of semi-prosperity, only to crash when the price of oil dropped.

Economic and Cultural Struggles

Waterman scratches the surface of this complex history with his visits to Inuit villages. His unlikely presence in Arctic villages, together with Inuit hospitality, results in invitations into many homes. Through conversation and research, he learns of the economic and cultural struggles of modern Inuit villages.

In one of the larger Arctic villages, Tuk, a 40 percent unemployment rate exists, normal for the area. Only three percent of the people have graduated from high school, and nobody under fifty speaks Inukitut, the Inuit language.

Cultural challenges present unique puzzles to the author during his journey. Inuit hunters use seals for target practice. Children are given much independence, and discipline is seen as injuring the spirit of elders.

Cycle of Renewal

He describes this belief, atiq, in which children receive the names of elders: “The atiq helped Inuit see their lives as a cycle of renewal in which no one dies, at least in the cosmic sense, and in which those wise and treasured members of the tribe provide an ongoing sense of cultural identity.”

Thankfully, Waterman avoids judgment, choosing to listen and record what he sees.

However, Waterman does overemphasize a favored aim to communicate with a North American audience that the modern view of Inuit is overly romanticized. Though his points are often valid, he dwells on Inuit problems like alcoholism and apathy with great attention.

There is less focus on positive Inuit initiative, such as their challenge of economic degradation in their communities. The Committee of Original Peoples’ Entitlement (COPE), formed to challenge invasions of oil companies in the 1970s, is an example that receives mention, but little attention.

Visions of Land and Sea

Interspersed with short chapters on history and visits to Inuit villages, Waterman takes us out on the open water. Visions of the land and seascapes are startling, draped often in the late afternoon light typical of Artic summers when the sun skims the horizon. The light, he writes, is “a startling reminder about how the rest of the earth’s air used to be.”

A color insert of Waterman’s photographs is a minute portal to this world: vast expanses of land and sea where “banal sensory reception is scrambled.” In this surreal light, he photographs diverse wildlife from musk-ox to snowy owls.

Waterman’s land and seascapes are also magnificent. Smoking hills hide seams of coal that ignite on exposure to air. Once, after capsizing, he warms himself over a steam vent. Pack ice, sliding over water like “grease in a pan,” is a constant navigational challenge. Icebergs, looming and sometimes sinister, pepper the eastern passage.

Life of the Animals

Wildlife figures heavily into Waterman’s description. Mosquitoes torture him, birds give him solace, and grizzly bears stoke his imagination (and divert him from potential camping spots). Immense herds of caribou roam the continent’s northern edge.

As a birdwatcher, Waterman keeps a journal of all bird species he identifies. The ways in which he incorporates bird watching into the narrative is delightful. Birds, like arctic terns and gulls, shadow his kayak. Rarer glimpses of jaegers, gyrfalcons, eiders and plovers, meanwhile, lead to moments of quiet admiration and reflection, and gratitude for the companionship.

Two animals in particular receive special attention in the book because Waterman seeks them out: Nanuq, polar bear, and the Eskimo curlew. Stories of Nanuq flourish among the Inuit. Waterman calls Nanuq “the animal of my dreams and my nightmares.”

He likens seeing an Eskimo curlew to “reaching the summit of an unclimbed peak.” North American hunters blasted migrating, low-flying curlews out of the sky in droves, and possibly to extinction, and they have not been positively identified since the 1970s. In the end, Waterman is partially successful in his quest to locate these mysterious animals.

Journey’s End

While “Arctic Crossing” is a pleasant read, there are some drawbacks. We see the Arctic through a lens of the author’s egoism, which even he concedes plays a significant role on his trip. This results in a number of tedious passages that should have been edited.

There are far too numerous occasions when the author describes his own feasible death as a way to build drama. Mental images of capsizes, the intricate, deadly work of hypothermia, and the appetite of bears are motifs that reappear again and again. It seems a clumsy and redundant way to remind us that in the Arctic there is much to risk.

Conversely, it is heartening to see Waterman well aware of the limits of his egoism, even if it does not escape his narrative: “I have taken one risk after another and gotten away with it. I have blindly trusted in an ill-defined intuition and my own elevated sense of mastery.”

After a journey of solitary kayaking that often leaves Jonathan Waterman reeling with loneliness and exhaustion, his intractable determination stands out prominently at book’s end. Indeed, his ability to document his trip so intricately is astounding given the enormous physical challenges. His clearheaded observation gives a unique and satisfying introduction to the culture and landscape of the Arctic.

Whatcom Watch Online
NorthWest Citizen