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Entrusted to save our land

Last week, a crew burns a small prairie owned by the Whidbey Camano Land Trust. The group is working to restore the rare grassland. Eric Delvin with the The Nature Conservancy, at left, and Jessica Larson with the Land Trust got to set the fires.  - Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Last week, a crew burns a small prairie owned by the Whidbey Camano Land Trust. The group is working to restore the rare grassland. Eric Delvin with the The Nature Conservancy, at left, and Jessica Larson with the Land Trust got to set the fires.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

A crew of folks dressed in yellow jumpsuits and hard hats burned a small Central Whidbey prairie last Friday with remarkable precision, using special torches that allow them to drip flaming liquid in long, straight lines.

The grassland is part of the Naas Natural Area Preserve, a rare habitat that is one of the few remaining homes of the endangered golden paintbrush. The Whidbey Camano Land Trust purchased the 33-acre preserve four years ago specifically to restore it.

The Land Trust is well known in the community and beyond for having amazing success in protecting land by purchasing property and conservation easements. But the prairie burn is an example of the Land Trust’s lesser-known work to restore and maintain the land they own.

In 25 years of existence, the Land Trust has permanently protected more than 6,100 acres of land on Whidbey and Camano islands. In honor of the anniversary, Gov. Christine Gregoire has proclaimed the week of Sep. 27 to Oct. 3 as “Whidbey Camano Land Trust Week.”

A week of events is planned to celebrate the Land Trust’s anniversary. There will be a tour of tidelands on Camano Island, bus tours of protected land, and the culminating event, a gala Oct. 3 with live music, short films, a speech by state Attorney General Rob McKenna and giant cake shaped like the two islands.

Whidbey Camano Land Trust was started by a small group in Coupeville, but the genesis of the group is a little vague. Memories and documents are fuzzy on the dates and details.

What is clear is that an effort in the 1970s to save vital stretches of Central Whidbey open space, farmland and scenic areas led to the formation of the group.

Coupeville attorney and environmental activist Ken Pickard created the Ebey’s Landing Open Space Foundation in 1977, according to the Administrative History of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. Pickard describes the foundation as the first land trust in the state. He got the idea from a pamphlet about land trusts. The basic premise is that the groups purchase property or conservation easements, which are the rights to development. With easements, landowners keep their properties but they aren’t able to develop them.

“It’s the best way to privately protect land,” he said.

But Pickard said the foundation wasn’t able to raise money quickly enough to prevent development at Ebey’s Landing; that occurred after a long, complicated process that resulted in the establishment of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

According to Pickard, the foundation basically evolved into the Whidbey Camano Land Trust in order to take on the Heath Easement at Ebey’s bluff trail as well as the Hayes Easement on North Whidbey. A group of Coupeville residents, including Pickard, his father and Freeland resident Bill Black, served on the first board of directors.

Black said he and his wife, Mary, have long been advocates of preserving open space and jumped at the chance to help save the famous bluff trail.

“It’s one of the finest tramps in the state of Washington,” he said.

Whidbey Camano Land Trust was officially incorporated in 1984 and was strictly a volunteer effort in the beginning. Pickard said the members discovered that a new property owner had cleared and built in an easement near the bluff trail, which was prohibited under the contract. The matter ended up in court and Judge Alan Hancock substantially ruled against the Land Trust, Pickard said. The case is detailed in the book, “Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America.” Pickard said he was upset and felt there was no reason to continue with the organization if easements wouldn’t hold up in court.

“I bailed at that point,” he said.

But the Land Trust continued and only got bigger and better. Danielle Rideout, program associate with the Land Trust, described the first 19 years of the organization as the “volunteer era.” During this time, the volunteers were able to protect important swaths of shoreline, wetland, trails, wooded areas and even an archeological site with seven conservation easements and a land donations.

After Executive Director Patricia Powell was hired in 2003, Rideout explained, the number of projects “exploded.” In 2008 alone, the group completed eight projects, from a 7.4-acre parcel along a creek on Camano Island to 176 acres of forest land on South Whidbey. More than $7.7 million worth of land was permanently protected that year.

Much of the success of the Land Trust is due to Powell’s expertise in obtaining state and federal grants. Prior to coming to the Land Trust, she worked for The Nature Conservancy, the state Department of Natural Resources and as a private land-use consultant.

Powell said the Land Trust has won about $18 million in grants in the last couple of years. Just this week, the group received a $1.8 million grant from the federal government to purchase easements on eight properties of important farmland in Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

“We’ve got a lion’s share of grants for farmland available over the last few years in both the state and federal level,” she said.

Powell said the key is to spend a lot of time on applications and presentations, plus picking “good land” to protect. The Land Trust isn’t interested in just any property, but has established protection priorities. The focus is on coastal lands, wetlands and streams, wildlife habitat and working farmland.

But Powell emphasized that none of the work would be possible without support from the community. The 800 members and generous donors completely fund the staff of eight who work out of the office at the Greenbank Farm. They are working to protect more land and to improve the land they have. This fall, for example, they will plant about 40,000 native species on the scorched Naas Preserve.

“Our members want to preserve the amazing natural areas we have so that their children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy them,” said Elizabeth Guss, director of development and outreach.

Land Trust’s 25th anniversary events

On Sunday, Sept. 20, supporters are holding a Land Trust birthday party in Oak Harbor from 2 to 4 p.m. A $10 donation is suggested. Contact Trudy Sundberg at 675-0860.

On Sunday, Sept. 27, the Land Trust is hosting “Sample Our Whidbey Preserves” bus tours of protected properties. Call to register. Go to www.wclt.org for more information.

On Saturday, Oct. 3, from 7 to 10 p.m., the Land Trust’s Gala 25th Anniversary Celebration will take place in Coupeville. Enjoy a live concert by the Grammy-award-winning duo Tingstad and Rumbel, a speech by state Attorney General Rob McKenna and two short films about the Land Trust. Admission is $10 per person, purchased in advance from the Land Trust.

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