The Distracted Isle

Well, civilization is finally coming to Lopez Island. After at least a decade of avoiding the ubiquity of cell towers, our electric utility Opalco has signed an agreement with T-Mobile to install 4G LTE cell towers on utility poles around the island. A few have already gone up, and many more are planned (38 in total for the County).

Many citizens are concerned about this development, for varying reasons. Some folks are concerned with the possible adverse health effects of electromagnetic radiation (a.k.a. EMR); some folks are not worried about EMR per se, but feel that having "good" cell phone reception will negate some of the advantages of living in a community that isn't quite as obsessed with connectivity as the mainland (a.k.a. America).

I am in the latter group. A few years ago I wrote about the EMR kerfluffle as it was unfolding at the time, when the broadband plan was initially put forth. I am not convinced that the electromagnetic "radiation" (scary word!) from cell towers is any more toxic to our health than other radio frequencies, or wood smoke, or arsenic in groundwater, or any other of a million things that we are exposed to on a daily basis.

But I do see a real threat to our local culture as the "always connected" mindset begins to dominate, and we are expected to keep up with everything...

Speed it up!

Speed it up!

I'm one of a gazillion people who are writing about this very same subject at this moment. There's no doubt that as human beings, we are losing something when the cell phone becomes a dominant feature in every interaction between human individuals, and between humans and the world around us. Does a sunset or a flower exist for itself, or so we can post it on Instagram? If we do not "capture the moment" does it negate the experience? (I take pictures and post them on Instagram, so I'm not casting any stones here...)

One reason these questions concern me is that I am acutely aware of my own neurological tendency to be distracted, and how the internet fuels that distraction. I make a living on the internet, and more than that I have come to depend on it as a source of knowledge and information. I spend hours just about every day online, and I think I'm pretty good at using the Interwebs. I get the internet: it's cool, it's fun, and it's very, very useful.

But when I step outside, I'm not connected to the Web, and neither are the friends I'm hiking with. When you go to a gathering on Lopez it's rare to see someone glued to a screen. Lopez has a culture that, while not discouraging cell phone use, certainly doesn't encourage or fetishize it.

Recently the Chamber of Commerce came up with an idea to promote Lopez via an app—visitors could "check in" at various sites around the island and earn points to be rewarded... somewhere. (I'm not too clear on the actual goal of the thing.) People went kinda ballistic when it was revealed that a lot of our cherished natural places were going to be "check in" spots. Fast forward, and the natural sites were removed from the app—but the fact is that someone (or more accurately many someones) thought it appropriate that visitors would use our beaches, trails, rocky bluffs, and forests as if they were a video game.

Such is the power of this new force: we have become conditioned to accept that the natural world is just another game to consume.

OK, time for me to summon my inner crank and start snarling about "when I was a kid...!" But really, when I was a kid, we didn't have little computers in our pockets that allowed us to check out of the work around us. We had to resort to comic books and Gilligan's Island reruns for that. And Mom would stride in and turn off the TV when it was time to do homework...

Nevertheless, in the 60's kids suffered from attention deficit disorders—we just didn't generally know it at the time. I was not neurotypical: I was one of those distractable, under-achieving kids that stymied my teachers and my parents. Adding the internet into my available escape routes might have been a good thing, but it might also have been disastrous. How parents today deal with "screen time" is utterly beyond my imagination.

Clearly, we're not wired to handle the level of sensory stimulation that pervades modern life. (You can Google that if you want to. But trust me, it's true.) That's one reason why people come to places like Lopez: to unplug. A place that isn't plastered with TVs, that has crappy cell phone reception, that has amazing natural places to experience... these places are too rare, and too precious to sacrifice.

Well, looky there!

Well, looky there!

What can we as a community do about this new onslaught, this new reality of "more capacity, faster speeds, and a superb experience" ? Well, the reality is... we can't do anything about the cell towers. Federal law forbids local jurisdictions from prohibiting the "provision of personal wireless services." Even if some citizens managed to bring a case against the towers, the majority of islanders support "better" connectivity.

But maybe there is another way for us to advance the conversation. Maybe we can think of ways to nurture the idea that people visiting Lopez would voluntarily unplug—that this community values experiences that don't require an internet connection. We can put forth the idea that unplugging is good for the body and soul. We can encourage focus, instead of distraction.

We can use the tools of promotion, too—we can "brand" our own message: a message of engagement with the world around us, instead of a screen.

What do you think the LopezUnplugged Brand would look like?


Armchair land exploration II

Part 2: The Past

In last week's post I provided resources for exploring our local land parcels through County records and GIS mapping system. There are also many historical resources for exploring the landscape, and this week I'll share some of them.

The Public Land Survey: or, where did all those lines on the map come from?

First of all, a couple of important questions: why are many of our land boundaries square? Who decided to divide up the land this way? You may have noticed a grid of lines on a topographic or other map. This large grid extends throughout most of the Western United States. It's a system for dividing land into parcels, and it's called the Public Land Survey System. The system arose after the Revolutionary War, when the new federal government needed to start selling off its new territories in order to pay the war debts. In order for the land to be sold, it had to be surveyed. The old European system of land surveying was called "metes and bounds," and it relied primarily on topographic features to describe the land and make boundaries. But this system isn't particularly reliable and another, more methodical system was needed.

Detail of a "metes and bounds" survey map of a California rancho

The new system relies upon a grid established upon two lines: the east-west baseline and the north-south principal meridian. Upon this framework, parallel lines of latitude are based at regular intervals, and then subdivided into survey townships of roughly 36 square miles (a square area with sides six miles long). (Note: because the earth is a curved surface, lines of latitude are not perfectly parallel to each other—they converge towards the poles, and various methods were devised to take this into account.) The boundaries of a survey township are east-west Township lines and north-south Range lines. Each township is subdivided into 36 sections of approx. 1 square mile (640 acres), and each section is further subdivided into quarter-sections of 1/4 square mile (160 acres). The federal survey only covered these quarter sections, as private surveys took over further subdivision after the land was sold.

The corners of these large divisions were (and are still) marked with monuments of various types. You may have seen one common type, which is a round bronze plaque set into the ground: there's one at Iceberg Point next to the white pillar. Often another nearby object, such as a large tree, was designated to witness the monument: thus you sometimes find a large, lone tree near a section corner called a "witness tree." Another common monument you may find on Lopez is a small bronze cover (like a small manhole) in the middle of the road. Surveyors use these monuments to set the starting point of a survey.

Principal Meridians and Base Lines of the Public Land Survey

Once this mega-grid was in place on the ground, the land could be divided and subdivided in an accurate way. The history of the western United States is inextricably bound with the land survey system: from the railroad land grants to the Homestead Acts, all development depended on the presence and accuracy of the public land survey. In the image above, you can see that not all states use the same system, but the Public Land Survey is the basis for most modern surveys.

If you've ever looked at a land deed, you might have come across something like this cryptic text: "SW1/4 NW1/4 S13, T1S R20E." This is shorthand for the land legal description, which can be translated thus: "The southwest quarter of the northwest quarter of section 13 of Township 1 South Range 20 East." (The description starts with the smallest division, the quarter-section, and goes up to the township and range level.) Within the rectilinear system of township and range, the land is usually divided into a very complex system of irregular plats and lots.

Back to Lopez

Last week I described finding a particular parcel of land that's for sale, and how I plotted it out on the county Polaris GIS map tool. Now, I can go into Polaris and turn on the Public Land Survey layer to see the section labels:

Mariner Hill neighborhood, showing parcel lines and public land survey labels.

Now that you know what "Section 23 Township 35 North Range 2 West" means, we can go looking for some sources of older maps. The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) has a collection of survey maps, some of which are from the late 1800s. So let's go here and enter the township & range we're interested in: T 35 N, R 2W (note you'll enter it as 035-0N and 002-0W; the Field Note Order isn't important). Once the results page loads, you can select the map files to view. In the Survey Plats table, click on the link in the Cadastral Survey - 1875-04-15 row (link to full image: 10.4 MB file). Here's a detail of that map:

1874 Survey map (detail)

There are cool details in this map: the wagon roads, homesteads, cleared areas, and lands set aside for military reservations... even the telegraph line! It's worth downloading these files and viewing them at full size. If you want to get the four maps for Lopez/Decatur, here's what you're looking for on the BLM site (township-range: date of survey):

The "T-Sheets"

If you want to really geek out on old maps, nothing quite beats the topographic maps made in the late 1800's, affectionately known as the "T-sheets." These maps have amazing details about the islands, including types of vegetation and the layout of homesteads down to the fields and buildings. The t-sheets are available online, but to see them full size you'll need to get a hold of a copy of them on CD-ROM (remember those?) Link to collection is here: Early Washington Maps—San Juan Islands. Library record (for Interlibrary Loan request): San Juan Islands T-sheets. Here's a delicious detail:

Update: Dr. Tom Schroeder, retired biologist at the Friday Harbor Labs, unearthed the original T-sheets and arranged to have them scanned full size by the University of Washington. Here's an article by Dr. Schroeder that reveals more about these fascinating, unpublished maps: Long-ago landcover revealed in Gilbert's exquisite t-sheets

From the Air

One last resource I'd like to share with you is a collection of aerial photos, available on the Washington Coastal Atlas Map. This map service is similar to the Polaris GIS maps I introduced earlier: you can add layers of data to the map. To do that, click the Add map data link; in the overlay window, select the Shoreline tab, then check the boxes next to the Shoreline photos dates, then click Go. The map will update and you'll see a string of colored boxes (color-coded by date) all along the shoreline of the islands. Click on a box to bring up the location info, then click the view this image or view large image link to see the photos viewer. Once you're in the photos viewer, you can navigate along the series of photos and see a larger version of each image. These images only go back to the 70s, but there have been enough changes throughout the islands to make the older photos pretty interesting. You can even compare photos of the same location in different dates!

Fisherman Bay, 1977—The Islander to Whiskey Hill.

Well, that's all I have to share today. Happy exploring, and if you have sources of old maps or photos, please do let me know in the comments!


Part one is here: Armchair land exploration.


Armchair land exploration

Part One: the present

Let's go land shopping!

Let's go land shopping!

If you read last week's post, you'll know that I've been interested in purchasing land on Lopez for quite a while. Over the years I've combed the real estate listings to get an idea of what's available, where, and at what price. Several years ago I discovered some great online resources for exploring island parcels. In this post I'll share them with you, in the hopes that other land-lusters will find them valuable.

The first resource is the real estate service Zillow. It's great because it allows you to search on a map, and it usually has all the MLS (Multiple Listing Service) listings for an area all in one place. But there's a lot more you can do to find out about a piece of land, and here's where a couple of County websites come in. So let's pick a listing, and find out all we can about it!

Here's our example parcel, as listed on Zillow. It's 2.2 acres of unimproved land on Mariner Drive, above Fisherman Bay. The listing contains the MLS number, and shows the address as "11 Mariner Drive"—but that address is not an actual legal address because there's no building on it. So in order to find out more about this parcel, we''ll need to do a little extra sleuthing. Zillow shows the agents that list this property, so I went to one of them, Lopez Village Properties. I enter the MLS number to see the listing info—what we're after is the parcel number, which is how the County records identify each unique parcel of land. Lopez Village Properties shows the parcel number as 252350011. Copy this number down for the next step.

County Records

Armed with the parcel number, we'll head over to the San Juan County Assessor's property search page. Copy or type in the parcel number into the Tax Parcel field and hit search. (The field will accept up to 12 digits—many parcel numbers here end with three zeros, so the nine-digit number we copied will work.)

Property Search

Property Search

The search will return the results of your search, showing the property ID, its owners, etc. Click the view details link for the full info. Note: this information is all in the public record, but please be respectful with your use of this information! Commercial use of public records is expressly forbidden. On the details page, you can see the tax breakdown and amounts, and you can also check out the Roll Value History to get an idea of how the values have gone up and down over the years.

Property search results

Property search results

There's also an option to view map, but I don't use the map service here—we'll go to another site to a better map that will show us a lot more info, and doesn't require the stupid and obsolete Silverlight plugin. So let's head on over to the San Juan County Polaris Property Search, which is part of the County's GIS service.

If you are a map enthusiast of any kind, you will love Polaris GIS! This information used to be restricted to owners of expensive GIS software, but it is now freely available to anyone with access to the interwebs. Enter the parcel number into the search field and hit the search button, and you'll get this result:

Wow! So much info here. We can see the property boundaries, how wooded it is, and where it is in relation to its neighbors. But wait, there's more...!

GIS Layers

The truly great thing about GIS is the ability to use layers to explore more about this parcel and the surrounding area. So, take a look at the left hand sidebar, and click on the section labeled Map Contents. Click the plus sign next to a section to expand it; check or un-check a box to show or hide that layer. Here's the layers you can explore:

  • Labels: show or hide parcel & road labels
  • Parcels: Show or hide parcel & plat boundaries
  • Public Land Survey: Section/Township info (more on this in Part 2)
  • Contours: show or hide the land contours. Helpful to get an idea of how steep this parcel is!
  • Critical Areas: important to see if there are wetlands on the parcel
  • Comprehensive Plan: check out the zoning designation(s)
  • Soils: this is a little tricky to use, there are too many colors and no labels on the map. But fun anyway.
  • Bare Earth: SUPER COOL! Using Lidar, you can see the land stripped of vegetation. In concert with contours, you can tell a lot about the form of the land: how steep it is, which direction it slopes.

The section below Search is Measure, and here you can measure the length of the parcel boundaries, find its area, and get lat-long coordinates. Below that are Drawing tools, which I have not played around with much. Using the "minus" button overlaying the map, you can zoom out to see a larger area. Gosh, there are a lot of parcels on Lopez...

So far, we've been starting with a parcel that is currently listed for sale. Using Zillow you can find recently-sold properties, or head back over to the Assessor's site and select Sales Search to research what parcels recently sold and for how much. You can also use Polaris to find out more about a parcel that isn't listed for sale...

Say you've had your eye on a sweet old farm and wondered if you could convince the owners to sell. Locate it on the Polaris map, and zoom in until you can see the tax parcel label. (If you hid this layer earlier, just check the box under Labels to show it again.) Unfortunately, the tax parcel labels are not selectable text, so you'll need superior eyesight or a magnifying glass to read the 12-digit number. Write the number down, then go back to the Assessor's Parcel Search and type the number in like we did way back at the beginning. You'll find the legal owner(s) name and address, and also the assessed value of the land. Who knows, you may find the perfect land, just waiting to help your dreams come true...

Next week, I'll share some cool resources for exploring the history of land parcels. Part two is up.


Of course, if you're serious about shopping for property, you'll want to establish a relationship with one of our many fine local Realtors. I don't endorse Zillow or any particular Realtor. And please, always use your knowledge for good, not evil.