Fifteen years after he founded the Pacific Rim Institute of Environmental Stewardship in Central Whidbey, CEO Robert Pelant announced he will leave the nonprofit on Dec. 29.
“There always comes a time when it’s appropriate to move on to something else,” said Pelant, who will continue to focus his efforts on environmental conservation. “This old body has got a number of good years left in it and I’m excited about new opportunities.”
Pelant, who is 67, founded the Pacific Rim Institute in 2009 with the goal of restoring and protecting degraded native habitats in the Puget Sound region, which the nonprofit accomplished by producing and providing native seeds, bulbs and live plants.
But the institute is more than a maternity ward for plants: it’s a place where the community — children, volunteers, conservation organizations and students — can learn about their environment and develop skills to do their part in ecological restoration.
PRI is only a chapter in Pelant’s long community service story. Originally from Wisconsin, Pelant has spent most of his adult life traveling around Asia, South America and Africa, working among indigenous people and poor communities as a veterinarian. After working with water buffalos and elephants in Thailand, Pelant moved to Whidbey with his family in 2005, where he has been living ever since.
Here, he initially taught classes at the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, for which he also served as director of the institute’s Pacific Rim campus. When he learned that Au Sable Institute was selling 175 acres of land, Pelant knew he couldn’t allow its prairie to be lost to concrete buildings or invasive species.
“As a society, we need to protect some open spaces,” he said. “As our world becomes more fragmented, places like this jewel of Central Whidbey stand as a place of refuge, solace and reflection.”
Faced with a difficult and urgent decision, Pelant took the risk of buying the property and starting his own nonprofit organization. This new adventure put Pelant and his family to the test as they entered a period of financial and housing instability.
“Starting a nonprofit in your spare bedroom is a significant challenge,” he said. “My wife put some of her dreams on the side table to allow me and to contribute to pursuing what was in hindsight a crazy and nearly impossible task of creating an organization and bringing it to this point.”
Pelant is also grateful to the community and all those who have supported PRI by giving the “proverbial blood, sweat and tears.” When he bought the property, many volunteers helped remove 11 miles of old fencing from 175 acres of property. There was so much fencing that it was impossible to see the buildings through the rows of metal, Pelant recalled.
Today, there are almost 40 acres under active restoration at PRI, and the organization has numerous partners across the Puget Sound region, such as tribes and the Navy, with support coming from as far as Pennsylvania and India.
PRI has played a significant role in delisting the once rare golden paintbrush from the Endangered Species Act and represents the only commercial source of golden paintbrush seeds. Thanks to its native plant center, PRI also has one of the largest populations of golden paintbrush in existence, Pelant said.
By saving native species, the environment becomes more biodiverse and, as a result, more resilient.
Thanks to the different partnerships Pelant and his team were able to build over the years, PRI collects seeds to restore habitats in areas like tribal lands, Protection Island, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Nature Conservancy land on Whidbey, National Park Service land on Whidbey and San Juan, Fort Casey State Park and more.
A particularly important relationship has been the one with Indigenous tribes. Pelant explained that Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest are natural partners at PRI because they led the ecological stewardship of the region for thousands of years, and by sharing their wisdom they contribute to PRI’s cause. In return, PRI offers them fields of their sovereign foods, which over time have become less available due to urbanization and the introduction of invasive species.
For some tribes, it was the first time in many generations that they had been able to reconnect with these foods, Pelant said.
Now that he is leaving, Pelant will devote some time to physical and mental rest before he embarks onto a new adventure. He also looks forward to welcoming his first grandchild.
Some have expressed sadness at the news of him leaving. Longtime volunteer and former Au Sable instructor Ioana Popescu said she found the news surprising and heartbreaking. Since 2016, Popescu and her husband have been spending from a few weeks to a couple months to support the nonprofit every summer, as they felt strongly drawn to Pelant’s energy and ability to connect so many entities to accomplish his mission.
Peter Dunwiddie is a restoration ecologist and affiliate professor at the University of Washington who has been involved with the property since the early 2000s, when Au Sable purchased what once was a pheasant farm owned and operated by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife since the 1940s. He became more involved when Pelant took over, sharing his scientific knowledge, and the two became friends.
“In the 1990s, there were just a few wild populations of golden paintbrush, and five of them were on Whidbey Island,” he said. “After just a very few years we literally had thousands of flowering plants on the ground. It was a spectacular success that we had not been able to replicate prior to that elsewhere on Whidbey or other locations.”
Though he is happy for Pelant, he believes he is leaving some big shoes to fill, but PRI’s CEO has faith in whoever will take his place.
“I know that people come [to Whidbey] because of what this place … can offer in terms of quality of life,” Pelant said. “So I have every bit of faith that the people that are here and invest in this place have its best interest at heart and will contribute to support organizations that help amplify that.”