Whatcom Land Trust celebrates 25 years

Nonprofit plays crucial role for parks


Photo by Vincent Aiosa


Were it not for Whatcom Land Trust, the public might never have seen the 54 acres of forested wetlands and beach that encompass Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve, Whatcom County’s newest park.

The story of how this park came to be illustrates one of the key characteristics the nonprofit has developed over its 25 year history: “We’re persistent, if nothing else,” said board member Rand Jack.

Jack was there in the beginning, when a group of farmers and dairymen met in the basement of Dutch Mothers Restaurant in Lynden to discuss ways to save farmland from being developed. As an attorney, Jack said he was the “token outsider” in the bunch, but he is now the last remaining original board member to still sit on the board and he played an active role in acquiring the land at Point Whitehorn.

For several years now, the group has kept an eye out for waterfront property that could be used for a park. This stemmed from a Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department survey that found residents valued access to salt water, but there weren’t many parks that offered beach access.

When the opportunity came along in 2005 to buy land along Cherry Point near the BP refinery dock, the land trust applied for a $1 million grant from the Washington State Department of Ecology to buy the land. The grant money came from fines levied as a result of the 1999 pipeline explosion.

In the purchasing process, though, it was discovered that the land management company Trillium Corp. had a legal say in what happened on that land. Thankfully, Whatcom Land Trust (WLT) had worked with Trillium before, and an agreement was reached. Trillium owned land just north of the land trust property that was much better suited for a park than the site near the BP dock.

“So we swapped property and everybody benefited,” said Gordon Scott, a WLT senior conservationist.

Photo by Vincent Aiosa

Rand Jack attended the very first unofficial meeting of the Whatcom Land Trust in 1983, when 50 local farmers and conservationists gathered in the basement of Dutch Mother’s Restaurant in Lynden.


Managing the land

By 2008, WLT had installed a 3/4-mile, wheelchair accessible trail down to the beach, all thanks to donations and volunteer work. Before opening the park, though, the land was sold to Whatcom County for a nominal amount. The land trust still holds a conservation easement on the property that restricts any future development, but the park is run by the county.

“We like to sell land to the county if it’s going to be used for a park,” Jack said, explaining all the liabilities and costs of operating a park. “We’re good at managing land, not people.”

The county is often more than willing to take on new parks from the land trust, especially in areas that lack public access, said parks operations manager Lynne Givler.

“That whole Cherry Point area has been high on the priority list for the county,” Givler said. “It’s amazing how things work out and [Whatcom Land Trust] played a critical role. They spend a lot of time negotiating with folks and making people comfortable with the idea of turning their land into a park.”

Twenty-five years ago, Jack never imagined that the land trust would one day help create 14 county parks. The original goal of the organization was to protect farmland from being subdivided into housing lots. At the time there weren’t any federal or state programs, like there are now, to ensure the preservation of agricultural land.

“We had a very slow start — not much happened in the first few years,” Jack said. “Farmers are not the kind of people who talk about their private business, and there was no money to protect farmland at the time. We started out with only about $130 in the bank.”

The land trust model that the group created allows individual land owners to sign a conservation easement on their land. This legal document is held by the land trust and restricts any future development of the land. Roughly 6,000 acres out of the 9,975 acres that the land trust protects is in the form of conservation easements on private land.

“I see us as conservation entrepreneurs,” Jack said. “What we have to offer is a way to protect land in perpetuity.”

And that is attractive to many people, even outside the farming community. For example, the ConocoPhillips refinery has been a financial supporter of the land trust since 2001 and organizes employee work parties to help build trails, said spokesperson Jeff Callender.

“We like to support organizations that benefit the environment, and we think the land trust is a good steward of the local environment,” Callender said.


From farmland to watershed

Though there are tax incentives for private land owners to preserve their property, the financial benefits aren’t much, said Jerry DeBacker, WLT development director.

“Right now there are good opportunities for tax incentives for family-run agricultural land. But for a lot of folks we work with, that’s not why they come to us,” DeBacker said. “Most of the people who come to the land trust say, ‘I don’t know if you’d be interested in my property, but I’d like you to take a look at it. You’re going to be around for longer than I am.’”

Once federal and state conservation programs began to take form in the 1990s, the land trust began to expand its focus to include other emerging issues: salmon habitat and watershed protection.

The land trust now protects 22 miles of riverfront property and hundreds of acres in the Lake Whatcom watershed.

“The watershed protection has really risen up as people have realized the importance of protecting their watershed,” DeBacker said. “[Lake Whatcom] serves 90,000 people and it will be asked to serve more.”

For DeBacker, as long as Whatcom County continues to grow, there is a constant pressure for the land trust to preserve more land.

“The opportunity to preserve and protect something only happens once or twice and then it’s gone,” he said.

It’s an issue that keeps the staff and the board focused and driven, Jack said.

“We are constantly discussing how much money to allocate toward being stewards of the land we already have and acquiring more land,” Jack said. “We have a small window of opportunity to get land that has wetlands and habitat and farmland before it’s developed. There is still a lot of land to be preserved.”


Whatcom Land Trust

First established in 1984, Whatcom Land Trust now protects 9,975 acres of land around the county, from farm land to beaches to river banks. The nonprofit has played an instrumental role in creating 14 county parks, including the new Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve.

For more information, call 650-9470 or visit www.whatcomlandtrust.org.

Photo by Isaac Bonnell


Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve

Located along the southern bluffs of Cherry Point, this 54-acre park offers a wheelchair-accessible trail through the woods that then drops down to a rocky beach with views of the Strait of Georgia.

A grand opening ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. on Memorial Day, May 25. Whatcom Land Trust will lead a group along the 3/4-mile trail, and local marine life specialists will be available to provide information.

Directions: Take I-5 north. Exit at Grandview Road and follow the road west past the BP refinery. After the road takes a 90-degree turn, the park entrance will be on your left.

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