Over the last decade, the drone of Jet Skis, Wave Runners and other high-powered wet bikes has come to virtually every waterway in America, bringing with it a conflict that may be the recreational equivalent of smoking versus nonsmoking in public spaces.
But it was not until these small personal watercraft began buzzing around quiet bays and sheltered inlets of the San Juan Islands that what may be the most polarizing of all Jet Ski battles was joined.
A county of 172 islands at the far left corner of America, the San Juans are known for their mischievous resident orca whales in the water and quirky resident iconoclasts on the land. These islands, connected only by boat or float plane to the mainland, seem to embody the liquid Northwest.
On any given day, the cold waters of San Juan County are plied by tiny kayaks and luxury yachts, cedar canoes and 19th century schooners, salmon trawlers and tour boats - even the occasional rustbucket Navy vessel, long-retired and sold as surplus. But one thing that is no longer here is personal watercraft.
In one of the most sweeping measures enacted anywhere against such craft, San Juan County last month banned all Jet Skis and similar vessels from its waters. The future of San Juan County, its way of life, its solitude and tourism-based economy, its surfeit of writers, artists and other solo-minded entrepreneurs - all is at stake in the battle to keep the zippy little boats out of the islands, county commissioners said.
What they are seeking, they say, is a Jet Ski-free archipelago zone.
“We acted to pre-empt something that was threatening the very lifeblood of this county,” said Rhea Miller, one of three San Juan County commissioners, the governing body of the islands. “We are a very unique place on the face of the earth. You take away what makes this place special, and you’re just like any other place in America.”
Across the country, other cities, counties, parks and governing bodies have tried to limit the jet-fired small craft, which can reach speeds of more than 60 miles an hour. But industry officials say no jurisdiction has gone as far as San Juan County - with an outright ban.
It comes as personal watercraft sales have reached record highs, with nearly 1 million units, sold for at least $4,000 a piece, accounting for 34 percent of all boat sales last year. And the industry, including corporate giants like Kawasaki and Yamaha, has taken up the battle.
Two weeks ago, the personal watercraft trade association, joined by individual dealers, filed suit against San Juan County, seeking an injunction. A threat to jet skiers in one area is a threat to all, they said, a point that gives the San Juan battle significance to the other areas awaiting the outcome.
“It’s as if one city banned the sale of Chevrolets,” said John Birkinbine, the executive director of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, a trade group based in Chicago that represents the six major manufacturers of personal watercraft. “What they’ve done is discriminatory. I don’t know of anything that could be more extreme.”
Industry officials say the ban, which carries fines of up to $200, prohibits people from “exercising their fundamental constitutional rights of interstate travel.”
San Juan County’s prosecutor, Randy Gaylord, says there is no interstate travel ban - people are free to come and go among the islands. What is banned is one mode of travel - Jet Skis and similar craft, he says.
“This is a question of local control - of how counties can protect their health, safety and general welfare,” Gaylord said. “We’re a small county, and a small office. We don’t have a lot of horsepower to fight these people. But we think we’re on solid ground.”
xxxx IN IDAHO In legislation passed this session, cities and counties will be specifically authorized to regulate personal watercraft use, if they choose.