New book chronicles endeavors to protect Whidbey land from pressures

Elizabeth Guss, co-author of a new book about Whidbey Island’s history, takes part in a reading at the Langley Library Thursday night. The book gives accounts of 15 conservation stories. - Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times
Elizabeth Guss, co-author of a new book about Whidbey Island’s history, takes part in a reading at the Langley Library Thursday night. The book gives accounts of 15 conservation stories.
— image credit: Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Janice O’Mahony considers South Whidbey State Park one of her favorite places to visit on Whidbey Island.

Most special to her is an area of walking trails that leads visitors on a gradual climb through a canopy of old-growth forest. One can get lost in time on the shaded journey lush with ancient trees, ferns and skunk cabbage, with birds often the only sound that breaks the silence.

“It’s an amazing place,” O’Mahony said.

O’Mahony knows that the very existence of her sacred spot is a credit to a significant sacrifice from others in the past.

She and two co-authors chronicle the conservation efforts that took place at South Whidbey State Park, as well as several other places on Whidbey Island, in a new book,  “Whidbey Island Reflections on People & the Land.”

Published by The History Press, the book is the product of research and interviews conducted by Elizabeth Guss, Mary Richardson and O’Mahony that tell the tales of extraordinary feats of conservation accomplished by ordinary citizens scattered all across the island.

The authors, all from Langley, have been making island-wide appearances to do readings and discuss the book since it was released last month. Their next stop is the Coupeville Library from 5:30-7:30 p.m. July 28.

The book illuminates the stories and histories of 15 unique places on the island, describing the challenges that were posed and, in many cases, overcome, to lead to their present-day protected status.

The authors decided to donate royalties from the book to the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, which plays a conservation role in several of the places mentioned in the book.

Guss, director of development at the land trust, said the book idea came about after she received an email in the spring of 2013 from a representative of The History Press who was seeking more book titles sharing local histories from the state of Washington.

“She was particularly interested in something from Whidbey Island,” Guss said.

Guss consulted with her two writing friends, Richardson and O’Mahony, and they agreed to take on the project. To properly tell the history of a place known for its natural beauty, they opted to tell it through stories of how the land has been protected.

The book shares the stories of grassroots community efforts to fend off development at places such as at the Trillium Community Forest in South Whidbey.

It tells the story of how citizens banded together to take extreme measures to prevent the clear-cutting of the old-growth forest at what would later become an addition to South Whidbey State Park. In that case, in 1977, community members arrived at the forest and stood in front of bulldozers and ancient trees to stop a contractor from clearing a road to begin the project. It resulted in a 15-year standoff in the courts that ultimately stopped the plan, changed the state’s logging practices and turned the forest into an addition to the park.

The efforts to preserve Whidbey Island in its more rural landscape was the approach Guss used to explain to the publisher how the authors planned to write the story about the island’s history.

“I told her what I’ve experienced in eight and a half years on Whidbey Island,” Guss said. “And that there is a very strong grassroots orientation here. I see it in land protection. I see it in meeting needs in the community, something like Hearts and Hammers. The Whidbey Island Garden Tour. Friends of various parks. That, to me, is grassroots.”

Guss said once she started gathering information for the book, people were eager to share their stories. But the authors needed to settle on 15 places, with each taking a lead on five chapters apiece.

“We came to appreciate that each story had particular highlights that we thought worked well in the community conversation,” Guss said. “We think people can use this as discussion stepping-off points. It’s kind of a collection of short stories that work together to paint a picture of this place that is pretty amazing.”

Not every story has a happy ending.

Sections about the Maxwelton Valley, Baby Island and Lagoon Point tell about continual struggles of how past decisions by people had adverse effects on the land and environment.

“Always, the land is in various states of recovery or adaptation based on human choices,” reads a passage in the book’s epilogue.

Despite best efforts by many, hopes of substantial returns of salmon to Maxwelton Creek are unlikely because of the needs of farmers and the way water is being directed, O’Mahony said.

“The farmers want to use water in one way,” she said. “And fish need water in another way.

“I’m not saying one’s right and the other’s wrong. These are some hard problems to solve.”

O’Mahony also believes that Baby Island, near Greenbank, will completely disappear within the next 10 years because of human development and tidal action.

“We also know from the Ledgewood slide and other slides that our island is constantly changing in relation to wind and tide,” she said. “Some things are directly man caused. Other things, not so much.”

More than anything, O’Mahony and her co-authors hope their book reminds people about the land-protection efforts from people who care about the island and raises awareness about continued environmental concerns.

Starting in the 1970s, many citizen groups and coalitions were formed over the years to fight for the environment and advocate for careful development as Island County planned for future growth.

The fight continues.

“This is my own opinion,” O’Mahony said. “I think Whidbey Island had about a 10-year break from developmental pressure related to the recession. I think we’re all starting to see signs now that the break is over.

“It’s going to be urgent that we figure out how we want the island to grow.”

“Whidbey Island Reflections on People & the Land” is listed for sale at $19.99. It may be found on Amazon’s website or at the Wind & Tide Bookshop on Pioneer Way in Oak Harbor or Moonraker Books in Langley.

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