If you’ve ever hiked, biked, or otherwise enjoyed Whatcom County’s scenic splendor, it’s likely the Whatcom Land Trust (WLT) had a hand in protecting it. Or more likely, thousands of hands.
In March 1983, some 50 Whatcom County residents gathered in the basement of the Dutch Mothers Family Restaurant in the agricultural community of Lynden to discuss a land trust and how it might preserve the county’s agricultural heritage. Amidst a national political landscape where the EPA’s regulatory impact had been systematically downsized in years prior and the director had resigned after being cited for contempt of Congress, this local group, destined to lead in community conservation, obtained nonprofit status and the WLT was born a year later.
Since its first board meeting with less than 20 attendees, the trust has grown to include staff and volunteers who have helped protect 24,484 acres of land — about 1.5% of Whatcom County. By comparison, all of the farmland in the county covers about 7%. More than 35 years later, some of the people gathered in that basement continue to donate or volunteer, alongside almost 1,000 others who’ve lent a hand in the past years.
The bulk of the WLT’s work involves either land acquisition or conservation easements. Land acquisition means the trust buys (or is gifted) a property and acts as a land steward, restoring wildlife and ecological habitats, removing invasive species, and otherwise preserving it. Community volunteers are empowered to help with stewardship activities through WLT outreach and partner engagement organizations.
But in places like Everson or Lynden, which are considered core agricultural areas in Whatcom County, the land trust might instead opt to buy a conservation easement. A conservation easement is an agreement between the landowner and the trust that either restricts or buys development rights on the property. A farmer, for example, would still own the land, and could even sell it to someone else, but a buyer wouldn’t be able to put a housing development on it. These easements usually cost around 50 to 70 percent of the property’s value, says WLT’s Gabe Epperson.
Inside the Land Trust’s Bellingham office, a huge map of Whatcom County marked with WLT-owned properties covers the wall next to Epperson’s desk, alongside scenic landscape photographs taken out in the field. One of these is a vintage black and white photo of Teddy Bear Cove, which locals will remember was once considered a nude beach (“Teddy Bare Cove,” as it were). As conservation director, Epperson oversaw new land opportunities and worked with tribal or county agencies to help with projects like farm protection and salmon recovery. Last February, he took on the role of the executive director.
Some new, large-scale property management has happened in recent years. Galbraith Mountain, known for its 65 miles of nationally recognized bike trails, is also a lucrative source of timber. What was once a handshake agreement between mountain bikers, loggers, and Galbraith’s private owners turned into a signed-and-sealed conservation easement, meaning bikers and hikers will continue to have recreational access to the mountain forever.
Epperson says he’s interested in pursuing more of these mixed-use agreements — partly because timber land is expensive — but also for the sake of building community. While some might balk at the idea of purposely sharing a recreational forest with a timber company, public/private partnerships honor a variety of needs.
“I tend to think the more people that are involved, the closer you’re getting to community,” Epperson says.
It’s this openness to different viewpoints that has afforded the land trust the success it’s had. Still, Epperson says, some rural landowners have been wary of working with the Bellingham-based organization because of misconceptions about the work the trust does.
“Politically, we’re not, like, liberal or conservative or anything…” Epperson says. “I think our success in those areas show that if you stick to loving the land, and [showing] what’s the value of farmland and water quality and habitat, generally, most people in the county agree with our core mission and our values.”
In 2017, after conducting a county-wide survey and sifting through the results, the land trust identified seven key areas to focus on in Whatcom County. According to Epperson, the most important of these was the Lake Whatcom Watershed, which provides drinking water for more than 100,000 people in the Bellingham area.
“We’re a really critical, valuable partner with the city in making sure that the land in our watershed is protected for our drinking water source,” says Philanthropy Director Jill Clark.
Another important recent project was a 1,400-acre purchase along Skookum Creek, one of the largest projects in the organization’s history. The property, which cost $4 million, was heavily logged in the 15 years prior to its sale leading to changes in wildlife ecosystems and water quality for farmers.
“It’s a project that, if you zoom out and look at the whole county, actually takes on a regional significance…” Epperson says. “It doesn’t matter if you save a large number of properties if they’re not connected.”
The parcel of land will reconnect various ecological habitats that, prior to being logged, ebbed and flowed into one another, encouraging biodiversity. This year, the land trust plans on purchasing another thousand acres on Skookum Creek that would connect even more of these habitats.
Clark says that despite the funding the land trust receives in the form of grants, the majority of its money comes from individual contributions. From 2015 to 2018, WLT’s annual reports show that 67% of the land trust’s funding came from cash or property donations.
“We do our day-to-day work because people like you and me give us $10, $100, $1,000 a year,” Clark says. “It helps us keep all these projects on track, manage volunteers to do all the stewardship work on thousands of acres every year, engage the community in our work, and get them to understand the value and the benefits that the land trust provides them every day.”
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