July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:29 PM
"(At left, Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve manager Rob Harbour, right, looks across the scenic expanse of Ebey's Prairie with board members Kermit Chamberlin and Benye Weber)Within the last two weeks, a local couple and a national environmental organization have purchased more than 500 acres within Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve.Combined, the acquisitions represent the largest conservation purchases on the 17,000-acre reserve since it was established by Congress in 1978, reserve manager Rob Harbour said.And separately, both buyers say the they were spurred by a desire to protect the land from development. On March 24, Fran Einterz and Joyce Peterson bought the 138-acre Jenne Farm, between Casey and Engle roads just south of Hill Road.And on March 29, The Nature Conservancy of Washington announced it would buy 360 acres of mature coastal forest that flanks the bluff trail above Admiralty Inlet; and a 20-acre stand of forest that borders the Ferry House at Ebey's Landing.The three tracts represent the last of the scenic acres that landowner Robert Pratt left when he died last year.The good news is that the title to Pratt's land is now resting in the hands of good stewards, Harbour said. Because of all the protection we've done in the area, these lands have become even more valuable from a developers standpoint and could have easily ended up on the development auction block.Fears that Pratt's land would be developed first surfaced on March 7, 1999, when the 84-year-old Pratt died .Pratt grew up on, then inherited more than 650 acres in the heart of the reserve. His holdings included farmland, open fields, forest, beaches, historic buildings, part of Parego's Lake and the Bluff Trail. The Bluff Trail alone, a high winding path that commands sweeping views of Admiralty Inlet and the Olympic Mountains, attracts thousands of hikers, naturalists and photographers each year.Throughout his life, Pratt rejected offers to develop his land, but his death raised concerns that his heirs might be interested in developing it into five-,10- and 20-acre plats for trophy homes.Some of those concerns were calmed when Pratt's will was read. It stipulated that four parcels totalling about 127 acres - including the Bluff Trail and most of Parego's Lake - be acquired by a 501(c)(3) non-profit agency, such as the Nature Conservancy, which ended up getting the land.But the bulk of the land, 380 acres, was left to an heir on the East Coast, and her intentions were unknown.Nature Conservancy Steps InOn Jan. 26, the Nature Conservancy announced it had optioned 380 acres of Pratt's property. The organization also said that if it could raise $5 million by May 15, it would complete the purchase. If not, the land would be sold on the open market.But last Wednesday, representatives announced that The Nature Conservancy would move forward with the purchase before the mid-May deadline, encouraged by strong community support and the fact it had already raised $1.3 million - mostly from Whidbey residents.The one hitch, said Conservancy spokeswoman Leslie Brown, would be if an independent market appraisal valued the 380 acres at a significantly lower cost than the $5 million asking price.We've decided to purchase it, even take a loan out if we have to, Brown said. The only exception is to pay no more than the market value.The Conservancy's goal is to put the 380 acres into permanent protection, preventing the holdings from ever being developed, Brown said.Meanwhile, she said, the agency is hoping to avoid having to take out a loan and is still trying to raise money to pay for the land.We want people to know that we're going ahead with the purchase, but on the other hand, we don't want people to think we're done, Brown said.The Conservancy is working with the National Park Service, which manages the reserve, to get federal money for purchasing development rights.The Conservancy and members of the local Whidbey community are lobbying get federal Land and Water Conservation Funds - revenues from offshore oil and gas receipts that total about $900 million a year and are used to purchase land and water to create national and community parks, forests, wildlife refuges and open spaces. An appropriation of $2 million would enable the Parks Service to buy the development rights on the Conservancy's 380 acres.The Trust Board estimates that another $3 million in Land and Water Conservation Funds is necessary to buy development rights on other lands within the reserve.Harbour said the Trust Board is currently working on 23 acquisitions that the board and other the conservation-minded agencies it partners with hope to protect from development. But the Nature Conservancy's commitment to purchase the bulk of Pratt's land, he said, represents a big step forward.The historical reserve was created 22 years ago to protect the historic and scenic prairie from development, while letting traditional enterprises like agriculture and tourism continue unhindered.It's a pretty major commitment on their part, Harbour said. It doesn't reduce the sense of urgency to purchase development rights and easements on the land, but it takes us out of the crisis mode.Another, more poignant result of the land purchases, Harbour said, was that after all the worry over the fate of Robert Pratt's land, it looks like the old man's legacy of stewardship will continue.He 'got it' way back then that this is incredible property. He got great satisfaction out of people hiking his bluff trail, Harbour said. And he was really reluctant to develop it, kind of ahead of his time in that way. It's exciting to know we're real close to seeing his wishes carried out permanently."