After breathing smoke for two weeks from the forests ablaze in California, Oregon and Eastern Washington, it’s been heavenly to enjoy fresh Rock air, blue Rock sky and cool Rock rain once again. And that started to make me feel a bit smug. We don’t have all this climate change catastrophe stuff going on here on Whidbey, now do we? All that smoke may have blown our direction, but it was made in America after all, not on our Rock.
Then the reality checks started to hit me. Our beautiful forests, which clean our air by absorbing carbon dioxide, are severely stressed by our continuing summer droughts, and I see big evergreen trees dying all over Island County.
Several large patches of our forests are being clear-cut for housing developments around Oak Harbor and elsewhere as I watch the pressure of population growth and development increase across our open-space paradise.
Whidbey’s rainfall pattern is changing. So far this year it’s well below normal, but when the rain arrives it usually comes with more powerful storms, which may create harmful flooding and forest damage. That has affected wetland habitat for wildlife and the natural aquifer that supplies much of our drinking water. Some of our precious island farmland is becoming unusable because of drought in summer or flooding in winter. Some farm acreage near the shoreline is no longer fertile because of salt-water intrusion as a result of rising sea levels.
In the mail the other day, I received a great primer on climate change in Island County done by the folks at the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, whose mission is to conserve and protect our beautiful islands. It had a lot of good information about climate change threats where we live and what can be done to mitigate them.
We have more than 200 miles of shoreline in Island County, most of it without development. It is a natural buffer against rising sea levels and more powerful storms. Leaving the shoreline in its natural state and allowing bluffs to erode naturally protects wildlife and marine life – and us. Development along the shoreline alters that natural protection; I hope we don’t give in to pressure for more of it.
Across our islands are amazing wetlands, usually hidden in forests, that capture and retain rainfall. All manner of wildlife depend on wetlands for survival since we have no rivers or streams fed by glaciers or mountain snowfall. Our wetlands are connected by forest corridors through which wildlife move around to find food. These wetlands and corridors are threatened by the lack of rainfall—or flooding—and increasing residential development, and that’s something we need to worry about.
The Land Trust, working with concerned property owners, is doing a lot of work to protect our Rock from the very real threat of climate change. At its heart, this work starts with awareness that our best hope for the future is to protect the remaining areas that are likely to be most resilient to climate change – those most able to adapt, if we act soon.
All of us who love this place need to realize how fragile our way of life here is.
The smoke next time could be from our own forests on fire.
• Harry Anderson, a Coupeville resident, is a retired journalist with the Los Angeles Times.