A marine area once set aside for a proposed fourth shipping pier at Cherry Point will be included in the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve and likely protected from development.
Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark announced Tuesday his decision to incorporate a 45-acre “cutout” for the pier into the reserve, after reviewing about 5,000 public comments, the majority of which were in favor of the change, and getting advice to do so from a technical advisory committee.
“This will improve habitat for the Cherry Point herring and other species,” Goldmark said in a media call Tuesday. “This decision is in the public interest.”
The move came a little more than three months after Lummi Nation requested Goldmark consider the change.
The cutout was meant for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, which was denied a needed permit by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 2016 as the coal export project’s pier would impact Lummi’s treaty-protected fishing rights. The tribe cited those same treaty rights as the reason the state Department of Natural Resources could now incorporate the area for the pier into the reserve.
Goldmark said incorporating the land into the reserve would ensure Lummi and other tribes retain the right to fish in their usual and accustomed areas.
“All of the ancient village sites of the Lummi people hold a special place for us, and Cherry Point is also a fishing village site, so it’s deeply connected to our fishing history as Lummi people,” Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew II said when reached by phone Tuesday.
“The decision that came out today provides a way to protect the site forever. … It’s definitely a good day. We commend the state for taking leadership in recognizing the treaty rights of the tribe as well as the health of the water.”
Land designated as part of a reserve is basically unavailable to be leased from the state for new uses, and the intent of creating the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve was to ensure long-term environmental protection of that area, according to the area’s management plan.
For anything to affect the reserve, analysis has to show that no degradation to the area would occur, Goldmark said in the media call.
Still, Goldmark said that the change would not preclude future development.
“As the management plan states, there would have to be an analysis done of any future proposal, and what its impact would be on the reserve if such a proposal would come forward,” Goldmark said. “That would also mean approval from the Army Corps and a host of other state agencies before it could advance to that stage.”
The decision was one of two Goldmark announced Tuesday. The other was a denial of an aquatic lands lease to Millenium Bulk Terminals, the other large coal export project that has been in the works in Washington state. It was not clear what the decision meant for that project, Goldmark said.
DNR determined the boundary change would not likely have adverse impacts on the environment (the change would actually result in additional environmental protection), which meant the agency did not have to conduct an environmental impact study before making a decision.
On Dec. 1, 2016, DNR issued samples of the nearly 5,000 comments it received in favor of the change, many of which talked about the area’s importance to herring and other species that are important links in the food chain.
“As you are no doubt aware, the waters and tidelands associated with the Reserve are an integral part of the usual and accustomed fishing places of the Lummi Nation,” Ballew wrote in a Nov. 17 comment to DNR. “Significantly, the area that we know as Xwe’Chi’eXen (Cherry Point), is of profound cultural and spiritual significance to our people and we have (a) solemn obligation to protect it from further development.”
Other agencies that commented in favor of the change included RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, Washington Environmental Council, Whatcom Land Trust, the League of Women Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County, Tulalip Tribes, Climate Solutions, Stand, Whatcom County Council Member Carl Weimer, former Whatcom County Planning Director David Stalheim, and the Orca Conservancy, to name a few.
DNR reported receiving about 10 comments against the boundary change, including comments from Gateway Pacific Terminal-backer Pacific International Terminals, the Washington Business Alliance, Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, and the Republican 42nd Legislative District delegation, including Sen. Doug Ericksen and Reps. Luanne Van Werven and Vincent Buys.
Those against the boundary change pointed out that the aquatic reserve’s management plan “identifies an additional industrial use (i.e. one additional pier)” and argued that “inclusion of this land into the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve will have significant impact to the land use and economic importance of Cherry Point recognized by Whatcom County.”
DNR’s response was that including the cutout in the reserve “does not change and is not inconsistent with any designations made in the Whatcom County (shoreline management program), local zoning plans, or the Management Plan, because the proposal to remove the cutout is not a decision regarding what future uses may or may not be authorized within or adjacent of the reserve.”
DNR also responded to several different comments that, “The proposal to remove the cutout is not a decision regarding future leases in or adjacent of the reserve. DNR may consider authorizing future leases within the reserve that are consistent with the purposes of the plan’s management objectives.”
Another argument made was that if cargo can’t be transported from that natural deep-water location, other means of transportation will have to be used, such as “more and smaller ships, rail or trucks most likely.”
DNR’s response was that removing the cutout does not make a decision on future leases, and that the state Environmental Policy Act requires “consideration of environmental impacts that are likely, not merely speculative.”