Freeland Wetlands Preserve is a hidden gem

Freeland Wetlands Preserve has been designated as a Habitat of Local Importance.


Special to The Record

Sometimes places which get little fanfare add greatly to our island’s quality of life.

For instance, did you know there’s a jewel of a park called Freeland Wetlands Preserve? Located on Newman Road near Scott Road, the preserve, owned and maintained by the Whidbey Watershed Stewards, has been designated as a Habitat of Local Importance.

The wetlands host nearly 70 kinds of birds. Resident amphibians include toads, frogs, newts and salamanders.

The freshwater wetland contributes to the island’s groundwater aquifer and reduces surface water runoff. The wetland is part of a series of creeks, bogs and fens running along Newman Road, which include the Earth Sanctuary. The preserve protects 43 acres of forest and wetlands habitat.

Chuck Pettis, founder and owner of the Earth Sanctuary, said the nonprofit recently donated two wood duck and hooded merganser nesting boxes to the preserve in return for Boy Scout Troop 57’s help cleaning Earth Sanctuary’s nesting boxes. Jeremy McKnight, the troop leader, serves on the Whidbey Watershed Stewards board.

In October 2023, the Watershed Stewards celebrated the receipt of nearly $300,000 in Island County Conservation Futures funding to purchase 2.8 acres of two adjacent parcels, providing permanent visitor parking and access to its hiking trails.

There was urgency on the part of the Watershed Stewards to purchase the parcels, as they were previously owned by Birds of a Feather LLC, which considered selling the property. Zoning had been recently changed that would permit building light manufacturing, retail businesses or office buildings.

Revenue for Conservation Futures is earned from property tax assessments. Island County commissioners issue grants to petitioners who seek the funds for conservation of important habitat.

On the 2024 tax bill, for instance, a home valued at $600,000 will be paying about $40 toward the Conservation Futures fund.

Meanwhile, Whidbey Watershed Stewards has owned and maintained 43 acres of the preserve with a volunteer staff since 2014. But the 2.8 acre-parcel remained in the ownership of Birds of a Feather until 2023. The Rotary Club of South Whidbey Island even built a parking lot, kiosk and picnic table on the property under the Birds of a Feather ownership.

After the parking/picnic area was rezoned by Island County, the parcel was offered to the Watershed Stewards and valued at $295,512 in 2023. The community rallied with letters of support requesting that Conservation Futures funding be used to secure the land.

Candace Jordan, a longtime board member of the Whidbey Watershed Stewards, said it was a long process — jumping through all the hoops to apply for the grant. Along with Bob Gentz, Watershed Stewards treasurer, and Rick Baker, former executive director, the team worked to secure the funding.

“We received letters of support from legislators, Sound Water Stewards and lots of public support,” Jordan said. “Now, we own the wetlands and own the 2.8 acres — the whole shebang.”

Among those cheering the Stewards’ receipt of the grant were local birders and ecologists.

“I would love to give a nod to them, as well as the Island County Board of Commissioners and Natural Resources staff,” Jordan said.

“This is probably the most critical wetland habitat for amphibians in Island County,” Steve Ellis wrote in a letter endorsing the grant. He served many years on the Conservation Futures Funding Technical Advisory Group.

Nowadays, volunteers are working to improve trails and remove invasive plants such as Scotch broom, Canada thistle, blackberries and ivy.

The wetlands are within walking distance to suburban Freeland.

“Can you just imagine more connected walking trails throughout Freeland?” Jordan asked. “I hope this might spark enthusiasm for that effort, too.”

Island Transit bus stops are nearby, so the public can walk to the preserve, and later, enjoy a coffee and teriyaki at nearby Petosa Corner, before catching the return bus.

“You have upland forest. It’s quiet. You hear birds,” Candace said. “You’re walking along, and have a sense of stillness. One day I looked up and saw an owl looking down at me.”

She recalled a recent story told to her by veterinarian David Parent, who has documented many of the birds and amphibians at the preserve. While frequently driving Newman Road, Parent rescues salamanders and newts he sees crossing the asphalt.

“I saw a rough-skinned newt crossing the road, stopped the car, put the flashers on, and was ready to get out, when a barred owl swooped down and picked the newt up, flew up to a wire and started eating it,” Parent said. “I worried that the newt would be toxic to the bird.”

Parent reached out to specialists and learned that barred owls can eat newts without adverse effects from the toxin.

Parent is concerned about the decimation of the newt and salamander population. For years he drove along Newman Road, while heading to his practice at the Useless Bay Animal Clinic, taking a moment to move the amphibians off the road.

“That population from the ’90s has plummeted,” Dave said. “While driving along the road, I picked up and moved six or eight this year. In previous years, it would be at least 20 I’d move to the other side of the road.”

Hopefully, with the preservation of the Freeland Wetlands Preserve, the amphibian population can recover. Parent noted, however, that the population explosion of non-native barred owls has added to the newt and salamander’s decline.

The Whidbey Watershed Stewards were beneficiaries of Conservation Futures funds nearly 30 years ago and spearheaded the purchase of five acres on Maxwelton Creek for the South Whidbey School District. The group maintains and improves the property for the school district, while volunteers teach school children the salmon life cycle at the property’s Outdoor Classroom.

The Whidbey Watershed Stewards welcome volunteers to help further the mission of education, wetlands restoration and protection. Besides working with the outdoor classroom and promoting salmon recovery, volunteers also maintain and restore habitat at the Frank D. Robinson Beach Park.

In particular, the Watershed Stewards are hosting a spring training program from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., April 11 or 15 at the Rene Neff Maxwelton Outdoor Classroom. Program materials and lunch will be provided.

“This season we will introduce students to our Habitats and Creatures Curriculum, featuring one brand-new lesson to the program,” Laina Stonefelt, environmental education coordinator for the group, wrote in an announcement. “We look forward to building upon our success last spring, in which we served 533 students on 19 field trips. Our focus this year is continuing to build a quality volunteer program. We are featuring eight lessons this season, four for our younger elementary students and four for our older elementary students. As a volunteer you can lead a lesson, co-teach a lesson, or be a roving assistant to any of the lessons by providing support and set up that is needed. As a volunteer you can sign up for a full day or a half day, either morning or afternoon.”

RSVP to Stonefelt at

Photo courtesy of Whidbey Watershed Stewards
Candace Jordan and future watershed stewards inspect the wetlands.