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Protection Island is for the birds

ELEANOR STOPPS wipes the salt spray from her glasses. Ahead, our destination rises fortresslike from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Protection Island will be dedicated this month as the only National Wildlife Refuge created during the Reagan administration. The ceremony marks the end of a 14-year struggle to save the island from developers. Mrs. Stopps, a bird watcher and environmentalist, led the fight.

Closer now, we slip along the island's south shore. Birds are everywhere. Nearly three-quarters of all the sea birds in Puget Sound nest on Protection Island - an exotic aviary that includes bright-beaked tufted puffins, long-necked cormorants, and the world's fourth-largest colony of rhinoceros auklets.

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Our skiff threads through a narrow channel to a dock on the east end of the island. We're greeted by Suzanne Sterling. She and her husband, Bill, serve as volunteer caretakers for the refuge. ``Welcome back,'' Mrs. Sterling says to Stopps, a frequent visitor.

Twenty years ago, Stopps was a homemaker and Girl Scout leader living in Seattle. There she met Zella Schultz, an ornithologist and wildlife artist.

``Zella introduced me to Protection Island,'' Stopps says. ``We'd come out and I'd help her band gulls for the Fish and Wildlife Service.''

We climb into the Sterlings' truck and ease up a steep road to the top of the island. Here the topography levels out to rolling grasslands bordered by wind-swept thickets of fir, cherry, and yew. In 1792, George Vancouver called this landscape ``as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly finished pleasure grounds of Europe.''

Since Vancouver visited (and named) Protection Island, its history has been one of man's attempts to transform the land into something ``useful'' and the land's refusal to cooperate.

Until the early 1950s, various families struggled to wrest an agrarian living from the elements. Gale-force winds and minimal rainfall thwarted their efforts. One island resident in the 1920s declined to write her memoirs. ``Living it was bad enough,'' she said.

Then came the developers. In 1953, the almost 400-acre island sold for $20,000. As subsistence farmland, that seemed a fair price. Ten years later, agriculture was not what speculators had in mind. Island property was in demand and the supply was limited. In 1962, Protection Island sold for $175,000, and six years later sold again for $435,000.

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That sale marked the first attempt to subdivide the island as a retirement community. Never mind that there was no potable water, that winds knocked over tractors, that fire was a constant danger, and that the ``view lots'' were eroding at rates approaching several feet a year. Never mind the birds.

``There's hardly a square foot of the island that isn't used by some sea bird,'' Stopps says. We've paused to watch a trio of cormorants swoop onto their nests. Nearby a dozen sea gulls noisily defend their territory.

Lunch is at the Sterling house perched on a bluff 300 feet above the water. The Sterlings bought it 10 years ago but later sold out and joined the effort to save the island. When it was over, they were asked to return as caretakers. The house's windows seem fogged. Not so, according to Sterling. ``Sandblasted,'' she says.

On the wall is a plat map of Protection Island as envisioned by its developers in 1968. It resembles one of those diagrams from biology class; how nature fits the most cells into the smallest space - 831 lots, 80 by 100 feet each.

``We couldn't let that happen,'' Stopps says with a nod to the map. In 1974, Zella Schultz died and Stopps took over the fight to save Protection Island. Her first victory was to persuade the state Fish and Game Department to name a 48-acre parcel on the island, purchased and donated by the Nature Conservancy, in honor of her friend.

``I'd never been a political person,'' the 68-year-old housewife says. ``But I had to learn.''

Learn she did. For the next eight years, Stopps wrote hundreds of letters and made thousands of phone calls. She moved from Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula to be nearer her cause and founded the local chapter of the Audubon Society. She enlisted the help of Rep. Don Bonker (D) of Washington, who termed the real estate development ``a gigantic rip-off - the scam of the century.''

By 1979, the county had suspended building permits for lack of a reliable water supply, and the developers had retreated into the corporate woodwork, leaving behind a trail of lawsuits and disgruntled landowners.

Representative Bonker introduced legislation to create the Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge, but the bill died with the Carter administration.

``We had to start all over,'' Stopps says. ``When the Reagan administration took power, all the national conservation lobbyists told me the refuge was dead. I just couldn't give up.''

Mr. Bonker reintroduced his bill, cosponsored by all of Washington's congressional delegation. When it passed, Bonker said, ``Nothing has been more important than the tireless devotion and dedication of one person - Eleanor Stopps.''

In 1982, President Reagan signed the refuge into law. ``But we still had to find money to buy the land,'' Stopps says. ``Norm Dicks [(D) of Washington] steered a $4 million funding measure through Congress, and after six years of lawsuits all the property has finally been purchased. Now we just have to clean the place up.''

For weeks, Audubon Society volunteers worked to remove the accumulated trash of 100 years of man's presence. The drive back to the boat dock shows a landscape on the mend. The landing strip, bulldozed into the top of the island, has nearly grown over, and most of the old buildings have been torn down. Near the dock, rusting cars and trailers are awaiting transfer back to the mainland.

Sterling says goodbye as we cast off the skiff and head out the channel. Stopps watches Protection Island fade in our wake, returning to its isolation and solitude.

``It's funny,'' she says after a while. ``That island is a sea bird habitat, but people kept trying to make it into something else. I just wanted it returned to its rightful owners.''

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