Hip Hip Hooray for the Herons!

Twenty-two years, hundreds of volunteers, thousands of hours, their own lawyer, and the herons won!

Twenty-two years, hundreds of volunteers, thousands of hours, their own lawyer, and the herons won!

Editor’s Note: Jamie K Donaldson graciously acknowledges community efforts in this article. What she doesn’t mention is her own unflagging commitment to keeping this issue alive over 22 years, or her fundraising efforts, her many articles, her gentle nudging of public officials, or her quiet negotiations. We at NW Citizen would like to acknowledge her. Thank you, Jamie K, this legacy is yours.

This past Monday, I was Zooming in front of a split computer screen: participating in the monthly board meeting of the Bellingham Food Bank, while keeping an eye on the City Council meeting. I knew the council was going to consider a potential land acquisition, which it does on occasion.  But this time was special. The council would be voting on whether to acquire privately-owned land to create a protected reserve at Post Point in Fairhaven for the Great Blue Herons that have been nesting there for two decades. When the vote came in 6-0 to purchase the land, pandemonium broke out in my kitchen… Well, as much as is possible for this elder activist “bird lady,” as I’ve been called. 

Over the past 22 years, and together with hundreds of others, I’ve advocated for permanent, augmented protection for the herons. This effort included challenging building permits issued by the city to build within the Critical Area around the herons’ nests. Now, with the City Council’s unanimous vote on Monday, the vision of a heron reserve will finally come to fruition. 

We would not have reached this point if it weren’t for the leadership of Mayor Seth Fleetwood. At advocates’ request, he took a personal interest in the Post Point herons during his campaign for office. And despite being tugged in other directions throughout the pandemic and homelessness crises, he came through for the birds. Please send Mayor Fleetwood a “thank you” to mayorsoffice@cob.org or call (360) 778-8000 to leave a message. While you’re at it, the sitting council certainly deserves our thanks as well. Please message them at ccmail@cob.org

What was not apparent at Monday’s council meeting was the fact that the journey to Post Point protections has been a long, circuitous, and sometimes contentious one. There were appearances before the Hearing Examiner, grassroots fundraising to hire a lawyer to represent the herons, and hundreds of emails to past and present mayors and council members.  While a complete recap of this history is for another time, I do feel drawn to list just a few examples of the many different ways local people got involved to help protect the herons over the years:  

  • residents of The Willows retirement home made a field trip to see the herons and wrote a joint letter to their council member encouraging action on their behalf;
  • local chapters of the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club rallied members to advocate on behalf of the herons and provided testimony for briefings and at council meetings;
  • Public Works employees who operate the Post Point treatment plant constructed fencing, added signage, and replanted native species in front of the nesting core;
  • wildlife biologist Ann Eissinger provided nearly two decades’ of science-based monitoring and recommendations for the management of the Post Point colony;
  • local professional and hobby photographers contributed photographs of Great Blue Herons to this publication for the cause;
  • The Whatcom Land Trust stepped up to help negotiate the final land purchase that will make the reserve possible. It has just launched a public fundraising campaign to raise $100,000 before Earth Day, April 22, to contribute to the acquisition. If you are able, please consider a donation for Post Point Great Blue Heron protection through the trust’s website at https://whatcomlandtrust.org/

As for me, well, on this joyous occasion, I’m not beyond anthropomorphizing. The Post Point herons can now raise their chicks in peace, knowing there will not be houses built smack up against the buffer surrounding their nesting and roosting trees. And in this instance, even though it was NIMBY-ism (“not in my back yard”) that inspired us to fight back development, we have achieved a righteous and correct outcome for both struggling wildlife and Bellinghamsters alike.

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 is retired [...]

Comments by Readers

David A. Swanson

Apr 01, 2022

What an achievement. Congratulations!

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Dick Conoboy

Apr 02, 2022

Jamie,

Congratulations on this very successful struggle.   A salute to your tenacity. 

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Tip Johnson

Apr 02, 2022

Goes to show how not giving up makes winning possible

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Ralph Schwartz

Apr 04, 2022

Jamie, I admire your dedication.

I know a more thorough report is coming soon, but I’m confused by this story and would appreciate more context: 

The great blue heron is commonly found all across the lower 48. Their numbers are increasing and the bird is listed as a “species of least concern.” So why did the city see fit to spend more than $1 million in public funds to buy less than two acres of land to create added buffer for a handful of nests? Am I missing something?

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Tip Johnson

Apr 04, 2022

Hmm.  Was it more than a $million?  Thought it was more like in the $700s. 

Ralph, probably you are just baiting Jamie, but may have missed that over these twenty some years the City could have paid well less than half the amount if they had acted sooner.

Whether endangered or not, the birds are iconic on the waterfront, evidenced by the number of Bellingham photos in which they continually appear.  I’ll wager that a substantial number of the upcoming Essence of Bellingham submissions will feature them.  This location is well suited due to its proximity to the waterfront, situated in the lee of a hill, protected from the prevailing winds.  The proximity affords the opportunity for us to view them frequently on their rounds or to visit and see them nesting.  There is value in that alone.

As for the eventual price, our planning frameworks have created a short supply of buildable parcels, so the price is up - well beyond what the heron can pay!  Are you against public housing - or just when its for the birds? I am reminded of the Big Rock Park discussion years ago when developers wanted the land and complained that the City paid over-market to preserve the park.  In America, if you want to save something you have to buy it at what the market will bear.  Would Bellingham be a better place without Big Rock Park?  Without the heron?

Finally, it will help retain a good buffer between the BWWTP and the two million dollar homes on Shorewood, protecting yet another class species - albeit also unendangered.  What’s not to like?

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Liz Marshall

Apr 11, 2022

Congratulations,  Jamie!  What a relief! So happy about this truly thoughtful, respectful development. I am inestimably impressed with your work and stunning achievement. You are  a force of nature! Kudos to the Whatcom Land Trust, other volunteers, donors, City Council and all other supporters. 

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Karen Steen

Apr 11, 2022

Ralph Schwartz - Thank you for your thoughtful and well-founded inquiry. I also question the basis of this expense, as I understand heron colonies are known to relocate themselves at will and without apparent precipitating cause.

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Jamie K. Donaldson

Apr 12, 2022

OK, Ralph and Karen, I’ll take the bait.

Ralph, do I conclude from your comment that you believe the Great Blue Heron nesting site at Post Point doesn’t deserve additional public investment because the birds are not on the Endangered Species list (yet)?  Or that there are too few nests (“a handful,” you say — incorrectly) to warrant the land acquisition adjacent to their nesting core?

It is true that the Great Blue Heron is not on the federal Endangered Species list.  One reason its population has not plummeted like most other bird species is due, in part, to human intervention before it’s too late.  According to the American Bird Conservancy:

“Locally, the Great Blue Heron’s success often hinges on people’s interest in protecting their sensitive breeding colonies. Fortunately, in many areas, nesting colonies thrive where the birds and their stick nests are left alone during the months-long nesting season (https://abcbirds.org/bird/great-blue-heron/)”

While not yet endangered, Great Blue Herons are designated a Species of Concern by the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, requiring protective measures for their survival.  Furthermore, protecting the Post Point site is consistent with the goals and policies of the City of Bellingham Comprehensive Plan, Shoreline Master Program, Washington State Environmental Policy Act, Washington State Growth Management Act and the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
 
Want something more specific?  The heron nesting site has been designated a Critical Area by the City of Bellingham and is therefore protected under numerous provisions of the municipal code.  Check out BMC 16.55.200 for starters.

Now that we’ve briefly touched on the legalese of heron conservation, I bet you and I, and a whole lot of other Bellinghamsters (except perhaps those with open koi ponds), could agree that we would like to keep seeing the herons around town and on the shoreline.  If they’re foraging on the shore, that means there’s still something left there for them to eat, a good sign for the slow recovery of Bellingham Bay.

And Karen, do I conclude that you basically agree with Ralph about poor bang for our conservation buck, adding that the herons might abandon their Post Point nesting site after we create a protected reserve (gosh darn pesky unpredictable wildlife!)?  It is true that herons have been known to up and leave their nests without obvious provocation.  Most times, however, we know what has sparked abandonment and it has something to do with human disturbance or predation. In fact, it is believed that the Post Point herons chose their current location after being flushed out of their prior nesting site down behind the Chuckanut Gallery due to housing construction, which included destroying active nesting trees.

If, after creating a protected heron reserve at Post Point, the birds were to abandon the nesting site for whatever reason, science and experience tell us to wait to see if they return and re-occupy the site. This is precisely what happened at Post Point when the nesting site failed in 2008 and 2009 due to eagle predation, according to wildlife biologist Ann Eissinger who monitored the site from 2005 - 2020.  The birds came back in 2010 and have had successful nesting seasons since; the 2022 season is well underway with courtship, nest building, and incubation.

Besides, if the Great Blue herons were to leave their Post Point nesting site forever, the City of Bellingham would end up with some pretty nice real estate in Edgemore. Surely it could find another beneficial use for it, no?


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