Rockin’ A Hard Place: Remembering a whole lot about a land that time forgot

It’s always good to hear visitors marvel at our beautiful sights here on the Rock. Last fall, while taking a stroll on the Ridge Trail to the bluff above Ebey’s Landing, I heard someone exclaim, while admiring the gorgeous farms and prairie below, “It’s like a land that time forgot!”

I hate to spoil a visitor’s bliss, but that’s actually not true. This is more like a land that never forgets … anything. We Rock dwellers, especially those of us who live outside Burger’n’friesville, also known as Oak Harbor, love to expound on what happened here a century or millennium ago. May I tell you about the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850? Might I explain who Joseph Whidbey, Isaac and Rebecca Ebey, Thomas Coupe and Flora Pearson Engle were? Did you know that ancestors of the Lower Skagit people were likely growing food on Ebey’s Prairie before Moses got his feet wet in the Red Sea? And so forth.

We sometimes try to moderate our passion for telling local history, at least a little, to keep our visitors from hiking away quickly with their eyes glazed over. But that’s about to get more difficult.

This year is the 40th anniversary of the signing by President Jimmy Carter of federal legislation that created Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, a successful community/government partnership that has preserved, maintained and enhanced a remarkable stretch of more than 17,000 acres in Central Whidbey filled with farms, homes, sweeping vistas and historical places. Get ready for a lot of celebrating and story-telling.

The main reason the Reserve today still looks pretty much as it always has is because we almost lost it. Hard to believe now, but by the mid-1970s residential lots had been staked and were for sale on the bluff overlooking Ebey’s Landing; residential streets were carved out and housing developments were platted on farmland on the western portion of Ebey’s Prairie.

There was even talk that a Russian billionaire had the idea to buy all the bluff lots and build a super-private mansion and compound overlooking Admiralty Inlet, thereby blocking everyone else’s view, hiking trails and beach access.

You really couldn’t fault some Central Whidbey farmers for wanting to sell their land to developers at that time. Small farms were often unprofitable and dying in the 1970s; young people weren’t staying on family farms. Land had become more valuable for housing than for farming.

But then a small but determined group of local citizens stepped up. Turn our beautiful, historic prairie into a residential suburb? No way! They argued, buttonholed and lobbied politicians and community leaders. Eventually, Washington’s two powerful U.S. senators, Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, among others, were instrumental in getting the Reserve legislation passed in 1978 and, even more importantly, putting money in the federal budget in the early 1980s so the National Park Service could pay farmers not to develop their farmland in Ebey’s Reserve for housing.

Over time, with outright land purchases and payment for scenic easements by the NPS and others, the threat of residential development on most open land in the Reserve ended. In the intervening years, the town of Coupeville, Island County and Washington State Parks and the NPS formed a lasting partnership to manage and maintain the Reserve, with major help from The Nature Conservancy, the Whidbey Camano Land Trust and the Friends of Ebey’s nonprofit group.

Now, we plaster “Preserve the Reserve!” bumper stickers on our vehicles and grin ear-to-ear as visitors rave about the sheer majesty of what was protected here 40 years ago.

Indeed, we’re delighted to tell you we haven’t forgotten.

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