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Appel: We Are All Visitors to These Islands

  • Written by Bill Appel

There has been much discussion about tourism, overpopulation, exhaustion or abuse of natural resources in the San Juan Islands ranging from anguish at environmental degradation and changes imposed by crowding, noise, and destruction of community on the one hand, and anger expressed toward perceived causes such as new people, always excepting ourselves, on the other.

How we see ourselves blinds us to what is really going on. We arrive, accepting what we find, relieved at escaping the social and environmental disorder we leave behind. But we are blind to what we bring with us: our personal contribution to social and environmental disorder. Who sees what we are blind to? The people who got here before you, of course. They have the same “last man in the lifeboat syndrome,” the desire to keep things rural and lushly green that you succumbed to when you arrived, however long ago.

Which introduces another of our peculiarities: the ranking people by how long they’ve been here. The first person who arrives after us (unless part of our circle) is an interloper. Tourists remain on the lowest rung of the “nativeness” ladder: the acceptance level you started at. Each new arrival is either a disturber of the peace and environment, and/or a business opportunity. While many stay for lifetimes, death only confirms the transience of their stay. The rest cycle through after being here for various lengths of time.

So, it would be fair to say that we are all visitors believing we are the permanent masters of our environment which itself is subject to the immutable laws of nature. We fantasize our rights of legal ownership including rights to use and abuse while excluding others from “our” property created by social contracts that we characterize as “legal.” Since we are mortal, beware what we set in motion. In the span of time in which shifting natural forces operate, even the “use and abuse” portions of property law will prove to be less fixed than the laws of physics as the need to adjust our behavior becomes more apparent.

Whatever our beliefs, we are visitors. How should visitors treat their host? Whether tourist or self-styled long-timer, the answer is the same.

Bill Appel

Friday Harbor