A leader with a unique perspective on the tightly woven tapestry of environmental interests, political relationships and nature conservation in Whatcom County, will be the new executive director of the Whatcom Land Trust.
Effective February 1, 2020, Gabe Epperson will supersede Rich Bowers as the new executive director of the WLT. Bowers has been the executive director of the Whatcom Land Trust since 2015.
“Under Rich’s leadership we protected more acres and now take better care of the lands we steward,” board president Chris Moench said in an email. “We work with vastly more individual volunteers, business, government and non-profit partners than ever before.”
Epperson plans to continue building on Bowers legacy and the reputation of more than 35 years of local land conservation and stewardship in Whatcom County.
The 39-year-old has spent the last four and a half years spearheading the Land Trust’s acquisition efforts as conservation director. As the conservation director Epperson worked to protect more than 4,000 acres of parkland, wildlife habitat and farmland in the county.
“Over the last nine months the Board undertook a nation-wide search which attracted many excellent applicants,” Moench said in an email.
“Among them our own long-time Conservation Director Gabe Epperson. Given the demanding and multi-faceted nature of the Executive Director’s job, the Board felt it critical that the Land Trust have a leader with the most relevant experience and the best record of accomplishments we could find. We also wanted a leader who would fit well with the collaborative culture of the organization. Through the search process, Gabe rose to the top as the one person who fit the Land Trust’s needs best. The Board is very excited to bring Gabe in as our new Executive Director and we are eager to see the Land Trust continue to flourish under his leadership.”
One of his noteworthy accomplishments was the Skookum Creek acquisition. Epperson said he was proud to have led the efforts for that acquisition which was completed last year. The 1,400-acre acquisition from the commercial timber company Weyerhaeuser acts as a drainage basin for the Twin Sisters Range. The snowmelt is an important source of cold water for salmon habitat in the South Fork of the Nooksack, he said.
We are currently working on an additional $3 million, thousand-acre acquisition on Skookum Creek, Epperson said. If completed would allow for public access all the way up into the Twin Sisters Range, he added.
Prior to joining the Whatcom Land Trust as the conservation director Epperson was the planning director for Envision Utah. The non-profit works on a variety of objectives such as Smart Growth Planning, land use planning and regional conservation.
One of my biggest accomplishments during my 15 years with Envision Utah was Blueprint Jordan River, Epperson said. The three-year process developed a comprehensive, publicly supported vision for a river that runs through three counties and 17 different cities, Epperson said.
After receiving input from all community stakeholders we spent a year going to all the city and county councils to create the Jordan River Commission, which is a new government entity that appointed elected officials from each community to implement the vision, he said.
“It’s almost like the land is our computer hardware and people are the software, Epperson said. “You have to know the landscape but you also have to know the social and political landscape such as government layers, partners, institutions, tribes and recreation group,”
Those who have worked with Epperson can speak to his high level of professionalism. The current senior planner in watershed management for Whatcom County Public Works, Chris Elder has worked with Epperson on a number of projects over the years.
Elder previously served as program administrator for the purchase of development rights program and long-range planner for Whatcom County planning and development services. Together they worked on several small land acquisition and some bigger conservation prioritization projects, Elder said.
“I think Gabe was a great choice,” Elder said. “He definitely understands all of the local players, local challenges and local politics.”
One of Epperson’s top priorities as the new executive director is to create a stewardship endowment fund to support the mission of protecting the Trust’s land in perpetuity.
Taking care of nearly 8,000 acres in the county and an additional 10,000 acres of conservation easements requires a huge amount of resources, Epperson said. Putting money away that is being invested and would generate interest can help pay for ongoing stewardship costs, he added.
Epperson has also set the Land Trust’s sights on an acquisition that if completed would be the organization’s biggest project to date. The project could develop a new nonprofit to potentially acquire 7,000 acres of Stewart Mountain to be used for a community forest. The WLT could then potentially have an easement over the property to keep it protected, Epperson said.
The Trust is also working with the new landowner of Governors Point with hopes that about 75 percent of the property will be donated to be used as a new county park, he said.
Epperson earned his master’s degree in public administration from the University of Utah and his bachelor’s in Environmental Studies from Middlebury College in Vermont.
“I want to continue the really good relationships the Trust has with a lot of different stakeholders and groups in the county,” Epperson said.