Land transfer preserves forest

Deep in the woods, somewhere near Strawberry Point, a piece of land covered with trees provides respite for eagles, osprey and other birds.

But most people will never see it.

Even if people want to venture out to the 13.5 acres that overlook Puget Sound, they will probably never be able to reach it, said Pat Powell, executive director of the Trust Land Transfer program.

Powell and other local officials spent the last year lobbying state legislators to convince them to transfer various properties around the island to the county. The group’s efforts proved successful, garnering enough support to see nine different properties come under the county’s purview by 2007.

The land comes from a state program that uses profits from logging state-owned lands to raise money for school construction. If a parcel is declared surplus, it can be transferred to a local jurisdiction and the value of the land is reallocated to purchase new land.

“It’s a mechanism that allows for lands to be transferred to local jurisdictions for parks and forest land,” Powell said.

The local agency then becomes responsible for the upkeep of the properties, but for the Strawberry Point parcel, that cost will be near nothing. The parcel is land-locked, meaning it is surrounded by private property and no public access is available — unless a person has hired a Sherpa to navigate the thick underbrush and stop the traveller before he or she reaches the 200-foot high bluff.

“It’s really remote and not accessible to the public,” Powell said. “The idea is that people can enjoy knowing that it’s there.”

Even Powell, who lobbied for the land, has not been able to walk it, except for looking up the cliff.

“It’s a tough piece of property to find,” she said. “That’s a good thing for the eagles that are nesting there.”

The Strawberry Point property is the only one on the 2005 list on North Whidbey. The nine parcels will keep 420 acres of at-risk forest lands and nearly 4,000 feet of waterfront on Whidbey Island free of development.

Other properties include 200 acres of mature forest land containing trails at the headwaters of Maxwelton Creek. This property will be transferred to the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District. An 11-acre waterfront property near Smuggler’s Cove, north of South Whidbey State Park, provides critical habitat for fish and wildlife and includes more than 1,300 feet of shoreline and beach access. Another parcel contains waterfront bluff, views of Cultus Bay and wildlife habitat. Forested parcels are located off Brainers Road, East Harbor Drive, Wahl Road and Cultus Bay Road.

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said that the group sent letters and met with Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen and Rep. Chris Strow to fight for the lands. Even though the North Whidbey parcel is inaccessible, it is important to maintain the open space, he said.

“It’s an opportunity to provide open space in Island County,” Shelton said. “As we go forward into the future, that will be more and more important.”

According to data from the Island County Assessor’s office, the land is valued at $618,320, but Powell said that value is primarily a guess based on the values of the surrounding properties that are accessible.

Powell said that she will lobby for more properties to be transferred to the county during the next biennium, but she considers the current list a victory for the county.

“It was pretty incredible that we had that many properties on the list,” she said. “That shows what a little activism does.”

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