by Dan Pedersen
Whidbey Camano Land Trust board member
Songbirds sing loudly on a sunny spring morning in the Trillium woods north of Freeland. State wildlife biologist Ruth Milner is talking about chickadees, kinglets, and warblers when her eye lands on a gray, furry object at her feet.
“Well look here,” she says, “it’s an owl pellet.” She pulls it apart in her fingers, revealing tiny shards of bone and rodent claws packed into a nearly solid mat of gray fuzz. In the pellet are the undigested leftovers of several voles that a great horned owl regurgitated after a recent hunt on the property.
For more than two decades, this largest remaining tract of undeveloped Whidbey Island real estate has been waiting for roads, buyers and builders that never came. Woods, wildlife, and outdoor-lovers have reclaimed the land. Hikers, hunters, walkers, joggers, horseback riders, bicyclists and bird watchers have found a refuge here to recharge their souls.
Now, if the Whidbey Camano Land Trust can climb a nearly impossible mountain and raise $4.2 million by June 10, the land will stay intact for wildlife and people to enjoy forever. Contributions are pouring in, but Land Trust director Pat Powell admits it will take a game-changing gift of major scale to bring home the deal. The Land Trust is looking nationwide for that deep-pockets donor.
To experts like Milner and forest ecologist Elliott Menashe, it’s a long-shot well worth the taking.
“Do not underestimate the importance of the size of this forest to both the wildlife and people of Whidbey Island,” Milner says. “I would not be excited if it was five acres, but this is over 600 acres of contiguous habitat. That is beautiful for all kinds of reasons. It provides sufficient space for the animals who live here and extra space for humans to come and observe and not disturb them as they would in a smaller space. Wherever there is no pavement, there is hope.”
Ecologist Elliott Menashe agrees and points out another huge benefit of keeping the land intact and natural. “The soils here are classified as prime forest lands of the state and help recharge the aquifers of the surrounding communities – Bush Point and Mutiny Bay, especially. They reduce storm water impacts and help fend off saltwater intrusion of the shoreline wells and water systems.”
The nearly two-mile-long parcel straddles a 300- to 400-foot ridge. It contains pocket wetlands of sparkling clear pools and is the headwaters of three creeks. The largest runs to Mutiny Bay, but another feeds South Whidbey State Park and the beautiful forest wetlands of the Wilbert Trail. “The fact that there are wetlands on the property makes it hugely important for wildlife,” Menashe points out
But it’s also important for people, Milner adds. “The way the world is going, someday we’re going to end up with little islands of habitat surrounded by concrete and small suburban homes. I don’t think that’s the heritage we want to leave our children and their children.
“As a parent, what I see is that this generation’s idea of playing outside is children going out on a manicured, suburban lawn. If we keep telling children that is the outdoors and that’s nature, we’re going to raise generations who fear nature and have no sense of place within it. A property this size gives us a place where we can educate children, and where adults can come and find serenity and observe animals in the wild.”
Menashe remembers and still grieves the logging that stripped this tract two decades ago. It was the last 100+ acre clear-cut on Whidbey Island and triggered a groundswell of community opposition at the time. “We lost the forest. But you know, if we can keep the land intact and not carve it up into little pieces, then there’s hope. Once you lose the land, that’s it.”
Even as he shakes his head at the loss, he is excited about the future. He thrashes through the underbrush to a large stump the loggers left behind. “This is a real nice legacy tree,” he calls out. “It’s an old growth and look at the red huck (huckleberry). Red huck pretty much grows only in large wood.
“You see this develop around a nurse log situation and it is a huge wildlife benefit. This stump has good rot; it’s got burrow sites; it’s got dense cover and it’s got food. There are salal berries, red huck berries . . . it’s a little habitat island. One of the big things for wildlife is the connection – to have access and transport, that connectivity. So even amidst some fairly uninteresting native plant development there are these lovely pockets.”