The San Juan Islands have the same problem as lots of beautiful places — it relies on tourism dollars and wants to welcome visitors, but the ecosystem can only take so much. So like other gorgeous and ecologically sensitive spots around the globe, these islands off the coast of Washington state have worked hard to develop sustainability policies to balance the needs of the land with the desires of humans. 

A landscape of an island.

Inhabitat talked to Amy Nesler, communications and stewardship manager of Visit San Juan Islands, and Barbara Marrett, who recently retired from the same position after nine years with the visitors bureau. Both women have spent a good chunk of their careers ensuring that the islands are both welcoming and well stewarded.

Related: Take a trip to explore natural beauty on the San Juan Islands

A sustainable tourism forerunner

“In the old days, it was about bringing more people,” said Marrett of tourism philosophy. “But now, so much of it for places like the San Juan Islands and Sedona and these other really sensitive places it’s about how do you protect or even regenerate as much as just bring more people.”

Visit San Juan Islands was one of the first visitors bureaus to focus on sustainability almost from its inception in 2003. One early campaign called “Leave Only Footsteps” aligned itself with Leave No Trace principles. “We were the first county in the nation to voluntarily become a Leave No Trace county,” Marrett said. “We came up with seven principles, we call them the San Juan Seven. They’re very similar to the general principles of Leave No Trace, but we tweaked them to be more relevant to the San Juans.”

Two hay bales on a green pasture by the coast.


It takes multiple organizations working together to successfully steward the land. Fortunately for San Juan County, it has a land bank and the San Juan Preservation Trust. Back in the 1990s, some locals concerned about overdevelopment got together and created the San Juan County Land Bank. Its mission is to conserve exceptional places in the islands, guided by local input. When people purchase property in the county, they pay a 1% real estate excise tax which funds the program. The San Juan Preservation Trust, an NGO, works hand in hand with the land bank and specializes in fundraising and arranging conservation easements on private land.

While the land is accessible to everybody who comes to the island, land bank acquisitions are primarily for islanders to enjoy. “So the visitors bureau is very sensitive to what the land bank wants us to promote or not promote, and what they want in our visitor guides and what they don’t want,” said Marrett. If the land bank is worried about protecting a sensitive beach for spawning or not adding to parking pressure at a site, the visitors bureau will leave those places out of its brochure. Although with social media, no place stays truly secret anymore.

In an earlier partnership, the visitors bureau was part of the monument advisory committee that helped get 1,000 acres designated into the San Juan Islands Monument. A national monument differs from a national park in that a national monument can be declared by presidential decree, whereas parks need to go through Congress. President Obama signed the San Juan Islands Monument into existence in 2013.

A road surrounded by nature.

The San Juan Islands Pledge

The San Juan Islands Pledge is one of the latest sustainability initiatives in the islands. Nesler wrote the pledge, inspired by destinations like Aspen and Palau. The playfully-worded pledge addresses issues Nesler gleaned from park rangers and other locals on social media, as well as her own observations. Visitors who sign the optional 13-line pledge agree to “feed my sense of adventure, but never the wildlife” and “carve the waves and not the trees.”

“We have promoted the pledge primarily through social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and only recently made it the landing page for our fall ad campaign,” Nesler said. So far, signers have left mostly positive comments.

An informational display on the genealogy of southern resident community of orcas.


You can come up with all the friendly guidance in the world, but humans still fall short in compliance. “Litter is a concern on the beaches and sometimes in town,” Nesler said. While visitors don’t usually leave trash at picnic areas and campsites, they do often cram more stuff into overflowing trash cans, leading to trash blowing away.

Visitors don’t always know how to treat local wildlife with the proper respect. Private boater interaction with whales, particularly the critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, is probably the biggest concern. “Though education efforts continue through our website, the county, and different orca advocacy organizations, recreational boaters often seem oblivious to the presence of whales—not altering speed or course to give them the space required by law,” Nesler said.

Tourists often make the wrong call when they encounter seal pups born in the late summer. “People who find the babies on the beach, and convinced they’ve been abandoned, will sometimes attempt to put them back in the water or other egregious choices that often do more harm than good,” Nesler said. “Most often, the adult seal has not abandoned her baby, just temporarily parked it somewhere safe while she goes off and forages.” But human interference often leads to the mother abandoning the pup, who then winds up in the islands’ wildlife rehab center. 

Then there are the famous foxes of San Juan Island, a photographer favorite. People have gone as far as baiting dens to try to lure kits out. They also create traffic jams when they stop on the island’s shoulderless roads, trying to get that perfect fox photo.

Whales painted on the outside of a building.

Spreading the visits over the year

Like other destinations with an obvious high season, the San Juan Islands would ideally like to spread tourism out over the year. Economically, the feast or famine model isn’t great for business. Environmentally, a flood of summer visitors is hard on the ecosystem. So the visitors bureau devised campaigns for the less busy months.

A fall campaign called “Savor the San Juans: a Medley of Food, Farms, and Film” originally ran during October. Now in its 14th year, it spans September through early November and includes film festivals, wine dinners, beer festivals, and farm tours to celebrate the harvest season. “Spring is guided more by the month – April is National Volunteer Month along with Earth Month, and we focus on promoting an alternative type of Spring Break – one that involves giving back,” Nesler said. Some visitors participate in the annual Great Islands Clean-Up, which happens on Earth Day. May is National Historic Preservation Month, when the visitors bureau promotes history talks, special exhibits, tours and its best old buildings through its “History Lives Here” campaign.

Piles of driftwood.

Tourism management plan

The visitors bureau staff has both been pushing the county to develop a tourism management plan. “It would be funded with lodging tax but it would be managed by the county, who would hire professionals who’ve done this for sensitive areas around the country or even around the world,” Marrett said. An ideal management plan balances the locals’ quality of life, visitor experience, economy and the environment. “Because in so many places, if you don’t have a management plan, the more people come, the more money you get to promote people coming. And that’s not a sustainable model.” Marrett would like to see the San Juan Islands craft a tourism management plan similar to that of Sedona, Arizona, another destination known for its extreme beauty — and the tourism impact that beauty brings.

Driftwood on the beach.

Advice for other destinations

As the world feels worsening effects from climate change, more destinations will have to address sustainability whether they want to or not. ”Don’t reinvent the wheel,” Nesler advised. “Connect and learn from other destinations doing the same work about their strategies, tactics, successes, and failures. And where applicable, adapt their ideas to fit your place.” She stressed that while many tourism-dependent places may seem dissimilar at first glance — like Vail vs. Kauai — they deal with similar issues like labor shortages, housing issues, traffic and human/wildlife interaction. She recommended attending or livestreaming forums and webinars on tourism and sustainability like the Center for Responsible Travel’s World Tourism Day event every September.

Marrett thinks the tourism industry needs to better acknowledge its role in climate change. “I guess I was a little disappointed in the tourism industry in general not taking more ownership of the environment,” she said. “We need to be part of the solution and not just keep reacting to these environmental challenges. I do see change happening in places like the San Juans and Washington state with tourism leaders being willing to take positive actions. We all need to do our part in evolving to be better stewards of not just our own destinations but the planet.”

Images by Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat