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Herons Continued: A Response to a Reader’s Comments

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In reply to the comments Gabe Rogel posted on my article of April 4. Or, to compare this article side by side to his comments, click here for a pdf of comments.

Gabe, it’s truly unfortunate that you have become embroiled in the recurring issue of development on Shorewood Drive versus protection for the city of Bellingham’s only Great Blue Heron colony at Post Point. This has been going on since shortly after the herons arrived in 2000. I am motivated solely by a fervent wish to see the colony permanently protected from further human disturbance to the degree that this is possible. This plat was offered for sale to the city in 2016. I believe that by opening negotiations with the current owner of the Shorewood plat to purchase it, and utilizing our Greenways Funds, we could create a permanent, protected Heron Reserve.

HUMAN DISTURBANCE

I do not believe that protection can be achieved by building homes within and next to this exceedingly sensitive area, no matter how well mitigated the potential risks. It is not a question of how many or how few additional homes and how low-profile they are within this Critical Area; it is a question of how much more human disturbance can the herons take before we shove them out again? Simple answer: we do not and cannot know, and therein lies the rub.

I stand by the original piece I published here on April 4.

Great Blue Heron at low tide on Bellingham Shoreline.
Great Blue Heron at low tide on Bellingham Shoreline. Photo courtesy Linda Wright Photography.

The reality is that you and whomever develops the second Shorewood lot, despite all your efforts at risk-reduction, mitigation, and enhancement, still constitute additional human disturbances adjacent to the Great Blue Heron colony. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s call for a 197-foot buffer around urban heron colonies is a minimum. However, there is no science that can tell us what kind or level of human disturbance will be the threshold for the abandonment of the colony. Even if there is no noisy construction underway during the nesting season, what about the inevitable disturbances afterwards? The smoke from a backyard barbeque. Headlights or ambient outdoor lighting shining through the trees. A leaf blower. Two new homes in the vicinity of the nesting colony equals more risk and less protection for the herons even if neither home is visible from the nests. Why would we do this?

TREES

Tree removal from the undeveloped plat on Shorewood is problematic, even if none are taken from within the minimal protective buffer. This is because the tall conifers to the west and south of the colony serve not only as critical buffers and screening, but also roosting sites and wind protection from the prevailing southern wind, according to Ann Eissinger, who has been on contract with the city to monitor and report on the health of the colony since 2003. They are also historic roosting sites for American Bald Eagles. The removal of trees from within this unique ecological niche that the herons have clung to equals less protection for the herons. What is the scientific basis for the statement by the biologist you hired (a highly regarded amphibian and wetlands specialist, I am told) and city planner Kim Weil who “Both agree the removal of these few trees, will not affect the rookery?”*

On the topic of trees, you mention that you would plant additional conifers to create additional buffer. Yes, perhaps in the future, if the herons are still there. I am not an expert on native trees, but I imagine it would take a while for newly planted conifers to add value to the existing minimal buffer in place, a buffer which has already been compromised on the lowland side where the water treatment plant was expanded in 2012.

BUFFER AVERAGING

Landing near crows. Photo courtesy Linda Wright Photography.
Landing near crows. Photo courtesy Linda Wright Photography.

As you know, the Great Blue Heron is designated a Priority Species by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Post Point colony, sloped bluff to the shoreline, and restored lagoon is a Critical Area for the City of Bellingham. Protections are required. Any variances from the Critical Areas Ordinance must be subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny. I am aware of the concerted effort you made with numerous experts to minimize and mitigate the risks to the heron colony that the “Heronwood Plat” poses to the birds. However, the mitigation plan submitted for your Critical Areas Permit is not based on the best available science as required by City of Bellingham municipal code. You employ the mitigation strategy of “buffer averaging” around the heron colony— less buffer at the eastern end of the plat closer to the nests in order to create a viable building site, and more buffer over to the west and furthest from the nests. Neither heron expert Ann Eissinger, or wildlife biologist Jeffrey Azerrad, author of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s “Management Recommendations for Washington’s Priority Habitats and Species: Great Blue Heron,” know of any instance where buffer averaging has been applied to the management of Great Blue Heron colonies, or any wildlife for that matter. It is used almost exclusively for the protection of wetlands and riparian zones —not wildlife. There is no scientific basis whatsoever for the assertion made by the planning department in awarding the permit: “According to the project biologist, the averaging will not adversely impact the heron buffer.””* In no way am I questioning the professionalism of the project biologist and her colleagues hired to prepare the required mitigation report. I do note, however, that both the biologist and the environmental consulting agency for this permit are wetlands, not bird, specialists. The planning department did not ask Ann Eissinger to review the mitigation report submitted by you and the developer despite her being the recognized expert on the Post Point Great Blue Heron colony for nearly 20 years.

PUBLIC PROCESS

Finally, I stand by my statement that there was no public process in the planning department’s awarding of the Critical Areas Permit. The head planner for the permit, Kim Weil, told me in person that the city is not required to hold a public hearing on Critical Areas Permits, so it didn’t. I find this regrettable because it is precisely in the Critical Area permitting process that scientific and environmental issues are considered. Surely the public has a deep interest in knowing about, and weighing in on, variances to the Critical Areas Ordinance designed to protect and manage our most precious sensitive, natural areas, especially where wildlife is concerned.

While I cannot be certain, I believe that the public meeting you mention in your comments was most likely a different, required meeting with neighbors closest to the “Heronwood Plat” project. I was not notified, or I most certainly would have been there. In fact, I have been a “party of record” for any and all developments pursuant to this Shorewood plat since 2015 (and on earlier occasions, too, going back to 2003) but I have not been receiving the required notices from the planning department. It was only because a friend of the herons alerted the Audubon Society’s local chapter that a sub-division application was about to be approved and a Critical Area Permit had been awarded to build close to the heron colony that we jumped into action - yet again.

Please consider a contribution to the Great Blue Herons’ legal defense fund by visiting: https://www.gofundme.com/f/save-the-post-point-herons

*quotes taken from COB Critical Areas Permit: Findings and Decision Type I CAP2018-0059 20 Shorewood – Heron Colony Buffer & Geohazard

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About Jamie K. Donaldson

Citizen Journalist • Member since Apr 03, 2019

Jamie K. Donaldson is a long-time activist for peace, social justice, and the environment. She was the founder of the Whatcom Peace & Justice Center in downtown Bellingham, and currently works [...]