Acres of Whidbey Island Farmland, Forest, Beach, Preserved

The staff at the Whidbey Camano Land Trust in Washington state knew they had to act quickly when a 91-acre beachfront property south of Coupeville went on sale last December.

From the water, boaters may have spotted the red house, old windmill and cattle grazing on the cliffs. The property near Keystone is home to one of the oldest farms on Whidbey Island. It also features a large forest and a long stretch of beach.

According to the Land Trust, the site was in danger of being sold and developed into 22 high-end homes.

In late April, the land trust purchased the property for $9.1 million, the most expensive purchase in the nonprofit’s nearly 40-year history. Conservation Director Ryan Elting said an “emergency purchase” was needed to protect the site’s 175 acres (71 hectares) of forest and 1,067 meters (3,500 feet) of nearly pristine shoreline.

“We don’t get many opportunities to protect a patch of habitat of that size,” Elting told The Herald.

The purchase of the property was accomplished with two bridging loans, one from a private donor and the other from regional lender Craft3. The land trust plans to repay the loans with state and federal grants and private fundraising, Elting said.

The nonprofit protects and manages approximately 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares) of parks and natural areas in Island County. With its newest property called the Keystone Preserve, it will focus on improving habitats and restoring the sea. There are also plans to open public access to the beach as early as 2024, as well as a network of trails.

The land trust is working with the Organic Farm School to manage the site. The nonprofit school on Whidbey Island will oversee the 20 acres of prairie and farm.

Elting said the vision is for Keystone Preserve to “become a demonstration site for ecological restoration, habitat improvement and regenerative agriculture, and how all of these can work together.”

On a recent walk along the beach at Keystone Preserve, Elting picked up a handful of sand and gravel and searched for small fish eggs. The small fish that lay their eggs on these types of beaches are an important food source for salmon and other predators.

The land trust will work with Island County Sound Water Stewards to monitor the beach. The group of trained volunteers works on projects such as forage fish surveys.

Further along the beach, Elting stopped at the feeder bluffs, special cliffs in Puget Sound that are constantly eroding. He said the cliffs provide “a slow and steady supply of nutrients” for plants and animals. When people build structures like bulkhead walls to stop erosion, they block the flow of sediments.

Elting noted that Keystone Preserve beach is largely free of these barriers.

“(The Land Trust) is looking for natural coastlines so they don’t get developed and we don’t have to restore them,” he said.

Up in the cliffs, birds such as eagles and guillemots make their homes.

Closer to the house there is a short section of bulkhead and a rock wall of riprap. Elting said the land trust plans to remove the 300-meter barriers along with the creosote-treated wood. The house is removed and the building materials are reused.

Other recovery plans include adding native plant buffers, replanting trees and reconstructing a creek.

The property was occupied by Captain William Robertson and his family in 1854, according to a biography by a local historian. They called it Lea Bluff. Before white settlers arrived, the Lower Skagit people grew camas in the prairie and relied on the plant for food, the historian wrote.

The farm has changed hands several times. The most recent owners have bred Hay and Black Angus cattle.

The Organic Farm School plans to manage the farm with regenerative practices to make the soil healthier. The long-term goal is to grow food for the community.

Judy Feldman, director of the farm school, said the school hopes to give new farmers access to land at Keystone Preserve. The school currently offers an intensive seven-month training program for beginning farmers on South Whidbey Island.

Feldman said the school plans to diversify the crops in the hayfields and use some of the grounds for ground cover production. Another idea is to grow storage vegetables, such as carrots and beets, that will survive the winter.

The land trust keeps the old barn on the property and rents it out to the farm school.

For now, the school is focused on getting to know the country, she said. Students have done soil research and will focus on improving the soil.

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