Island Stewards // Bainbridge Island Land Trust Marks 25 Years of Preservation

By Cindy Jones

Imagine cruising along highway 305 through Bainbridge trees going by in a lush parade, thick forest every so often giving way to rolling farmland and green open spaces. Now imagine that instead of the farmland, you see an enormous fence soaring toward the sky and high-intensity lights ringing that fence, which encloses a driving range, set down smack in the middle of the island.

Add to that picture a development going up along the shores of Blakely Harbor and the Grand Forest being cleared to the ground, and you have an idea of what the community found itself facing 25 years ago. It was an image that seriously disturbed a lot of the island’s citizens.

Disturbed them enough that together they sat up and took note and took action. Large swaths of the community rallied together against the proposed driving range and kept up the pressure until the plan was ultimately dropped.

It was an important victory but everyone knew it wasn’t enough. “We’d won that battle,” said Paul Kundtz, who helped fight the driving range, “but there was still a war on.” Following that first effort, Kundtz, an attorney, teamed up with architects Nate Thomas and Jim

For everyone. Forever. From wetlands to parklands, grand forests to grand vistas, the Bainbridge Island Land Trust has dedicated itself to the preservation and conservation of our island’s most important natural resource—the land itself.

Cutler, state lobbyist Mike Ryherd, and Richard Brown, then head of the Bloedel Reserve. Together the group looked for a way to permanently protect the island’s most important places. That small team launched what would become a big mission.

Their goal was to establish a land trust for the community, a fairly radical undertaking at a time when most land trusts operated on a national scale. The group studied other organizations, adapted their ideas and officially formed the Bainbridge Island Land Trust in 1989.

It would be five years before the group brought in a paid staff; in the meantime, the founders took care of all the administrative tasks themselves. But from the start, the group’s goals had plenty of support from the community.

“It was the right time and the right place,” Kundtz noted, adding that interest in their efforts took off right away. In fact, the site of the proposed driving range became the Land Trust’s first conservation easement, as they successfully found a buyer who was willing to purchase the property and put permanent protections on it. With that, the site that set the whole project in motion became Willowbrook Farm and the rural nature of the land was protected in perpetuity.

“For everyone. Forever.” That tagline was developed this year for the Land Trust’s 25th anniversary, but its message has been a guiding principle all along. The quality of permanence is fundamental to the Land Trust’s mission and central to its appeal.

It’s a key to what keeps the group’s staff, volunteers and donors so passionately committed to its mission. “When I first moved to the island in 1984, there was tons of open space,” said Jane Stone, executive director of the Land Trust. “But that was just because a lot of properties hadn’t been developed yet. At the time, there was very little that was permanently protected.” Since then, nearly 1,300 acres of land have been preserved through the Land Trust’s efforts. And not just any land.

From the beginning the Trust has looked for specific conservation values in the properties that it works to protect. One of its guiding goals is to link crucial pieces of an ecosystem. To do that might require purchases or easements that knit together a whole network of forests, wetlands and shoreline—each of which are fragments of an ecological puzzle holding together the island’s wild places and, some would say, constituting a good part of its soul.

“We want to piece together and protect uninterrupted open space,” Stone said, pointing out the importance of preserving large enough areas that wildlife and plant life can thrive. “When I think of the tagline, ‘For everyone,’” she said, “I think of not just humans, but the whole ecosystem.”

That said, making land available for public access is one of two main pillars of the Land Trust’s work. Of the 1,287 acres that the Trust has helped to preserve so far, nearly 1,000 are available for public use. These sites include some of the island’s most beloved spaces: the Grand Forest, Gazzam Lake, Pritchard Park and Blakely Harbor Park.

With these and its other properties, the Land Trust either was directly involved in the purchases or helped to bring the various parties together. In many cases, the Trust partners closely with the Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Park and Recreation District.

“Neither of our groups could thrive without the other,” said Connie Waddington, who’s been a land trust supporter from its earliest days and served as its interim director before Stone took on the role full-time earlier this year.

Waddington pointed out that it was the Park District that administered the bond process which led to the purchase of the Grand Forest. The Park District also brings some practical, on-the ground expertise to the partnership.

As Waddington noted, “They can provide resources and management that the Land Trust generally doesn’t,” including such things as signage, parking and trail maintenance. The second pillar in the Land Trust’s mission is to identify and create conservation easements, like Willowbrook Farm, which protect private properties owned by individuals, families, or in some cases small groups of owners who join together to preserve a site.

These easements tend to be relatively small—at times only an acreor two—but still represent critical links in the conservation effort. Conserving more of these privately held pieces will be an important part of the Land Trust’s focus in the coming decade, according to Stone.

She estimates that as more and more property gets broken up or developed in the next 5 to 10 years, the supply of land with relevant conservation values will dwindle. After that point, the Land Trust’s focus will turn more fully toward stewardship and restoration of its protected properties, so that their conservation values are preserved and in some cases enhanced.

When it comes to pulling out Scotch broom and beating back other invasive species, there’s really no end point; with other ongoing Land Trust projects, the challenge is not just holding a line but creating improvements to protected properties so that the island’s ecosystems can continue to recover and thrive.

Viewed from an ecological perspective, 25 years may be a tiny amount of time. But considering what the Land Trust has accomplished in the time since its founding, starting with a farm in place of a driving range, 25 years has been long enough to make an indelible difference in the island’s character and to preserve crucial parts of its landscape forever.