The San Juan Preservation Trust (SJPT) was established in 1979 to promote conservation efforts in the San Juan Islands. Throughout the late 1970s, island residents had become increasingly alarmed that the very essence of what made the islands such a special place was rapidly being destroyed by unplanned and unregulated development. Houses intruded on formerly pristine shorelines, farmlands were subdivided for residences, luxury developments were planned for mountainsides overlooking the Salish Sea. The Nature Conservancy had undertaken some conservation in the islands, but a more local, ongoing effort was needed. SJPT began by assisting landowners to preserve property through conservation easements, but as the Trust grew, so did the scale of successful conservation efforts. Cooperative undertakings and special fundraising campaigns enabled major conservation projects such as the Turtleback Mountain Preserve on Orcas Island. The Trust has offered lecture series, visits to preserves, wildflower walks, and numerous other activities to engage islanders and increase understanding of the relevance and benefits of conservation. By 2019, SJPT had permanently protected more than 300 properties, 45 miles of shoreline, 27 miles of trails, and 18,000 acres of land on 20 islands.
The Need for Conservation
Situated in the far Pacific Northwest between mainland Washington and British Columbia's Vancouver Island, the San Juan archipelago has long had a reputation for its scenic beauty, from rugged shorelines and rocky islets to wind-swept open prairies and meadows, wetlands sheltering diverse wildlife, and quiet forests. For millennia Coast Salish Native Americans visited and established villages in the islands, harvesting the abundant salmon, oysters, and clams in local waters, raising woolly dogs, and cultivating camas, onions, tiger lilies, and other crops. Non-Native settlers arrived in the mid-nineteenth century, and the small and slowly growing population fished and farmed, worked in the lime industry, and logged the islands for generations. Visitors arrived, first by steamer and later by ferry and airplane, to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, varied and remarkable scenery, and numerous recreational opportunities. As early as 1885, just a dozen years after San Juan County was formed, Washington territorial governor Watson C. Squire (1838-1926) noted that the San Juans were establishing a reputation for their scenic appeal and fast becoming a popular summer-resort area. In 1970 the county's population was only 3,856, but a rapidly developing demand for vacation homes and expanded tourism resulted in a surge to 7,838 a decade later. The first condominium project was approved in 1972 despite local opposition, and by this time most of the larger islands had seen at least some development or incursion.
Observing the changes, many residents were concerned about the increasingly rapid loss of scenic areas and vistas. One group of islanders, assisted by The Nature Conservancy, a national conservation organization founded in 1951, created a San Juan Islands conservation committee to develop long-range plans for local conservation undertakings. When a 269-acre parcel on Waldron Island, considered "a complete world of island ecology, going from beach to marsh, to meadow to forest" (Roush and Margolis), came on the market for development in 1971, local residents sought The Nature Conservancy's help, and the Conservancy was able to act quickly, purchasing the site for $255,000. In ensuing years, the Conservancy expanded holdings in the islands and in 1975 undertook a study to identify those areas in the San Juans having the greatest ecological and environmental significance and to inform future decision-making on priority conservation efforts.
The conservation movement was gaining momentum and public recognition in the 1970s. Many states had passed legislation authorizing the formation of land trusts, both governmental and private, that could develop legal agreements, called conservation easements, with property owners to permanently limit how lands could be altered or used. Landowners retain many rights including continuing to use (farming or harvesting timber, for example) or to sell the property or gift it to heirs. However, the restrictions agreed upon by a trust and a property owner, specifically tailored for each individual transaction, continue in force permanently, through time and change of ownership. The enabling legislation in Washington state in 1971 stated that the purpose of easements was "to protect, preserve, maintain, improve, restore, limit the future use of, or conserve for open space purposes any land or improvement of the land" (Liegel), and authorized easements to protect not only natural habitat or air and water quality but also archaeological or historical resources. While land trusts were becoming more common in the eastern United States, few had been established in the West.
As the decade closed, The Nature Conservancy focused less on the San Juans, and conservation work in the islands faltered. At the same time, several property owners approached the Board of County Commissioners concerning possible protection of their lands against further development or division for sale. However, the majority of the commissioners were not, at the time, in favor of taking on such a long-term commitment. On Orcas Island Linda Henry, a former county commissioner, community activist, and conservation proponent, began to investigate the feasibility of creating a land trust in the San Juan Islands to continue the work begun by the Conservancy. Henry, together with Orcas resident Pamela Loew and San Francisco lawyer Frank S. Bayley II (who had a summer home on the island) and his sons Thomas, Frank III, and Douglas, decided to establish a private land trust to ensure islanders could "reserve the extraordinary beauty and unique way of life of the San Juans" (20th Anniversary Report ...). Frank Bayley II filed the legal documents to create the San Juan Preservation Trust, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, in April 1979. As Tim Seifert, Executive Director of the Trust from 2002 to 2018, observed, this "loose band of Orcas islanders without any conservation experience had a lot of guts to think they could make this work" (Macdonald).
The Trust Gets Underway
Not much was accomplished that first year, but by 1980 new members from several islands had joined the board of trustees and determined efforts were underway to get the Trust up and running. A Laird Norton Foundation grant of $10,000 provided seed money for operations. Board member Wendy Mickle of Lopez Island, who was researching information on land-trust operations, agreed to become the volunteer executive director, and the Trust operated out of her living room. People who contacted The Nature Conservancy about land they wanted to preserve in the San Juans were referred to the new organization.
Among the islanders most eager to have the Trust fully functioning were Ernest (1910-1991) and Dodie (1922-2012) Gann of San Juan Island. The Ganns (he an adventurer, sailor, pilot, and author of popular books; she also an adventurer and accomplished pilot, and a U.S. Ski Hall of Fame member) had, since the 1960s, owned one of the largest agricultural properties in the islands and wanted to establish protection for a bald eagle nesting site on their land. The 38-acre forested tract was a gift to the Trust in 1980, its first official transaction. Dodie Gann, who became a longtime trustee and land counselor with SJPT, was a staunch advocate for how the Trust worked with landowners, saying "You can tailor how your land will be used. No one will dictate to you what will happen to your land" (Macdonald). Following her death in 2012, the Ganns' beloved Red Mill Farm was bequeathed to the Trust, and the entire 748-acre farm was permanently protected as a working agricultural preserve.
In 1981 Linda Krieger became the Trust's first salaried executive director. In the next years SJPT focused on educating the community about the Trust and the possibilities for preservation that island landowners had available. A leaflet, the first of many publications, was prepared, declaring, "The Trust provides a legacy of natural areas at no public expense" (SJPT leaflet, ca. 1982) and informing landowners that the Trust would work with them to meet their preservation plans and preferences. Initially, however, SJPT encountered skepticism from many islanders. Some mistakenly thought that land put in a conservation easement or owned by the Trust would go off the tax rolls and become a burden for the community. Taxes on conservation easements do, in fact, continue to be paid by landowners, and the trustees early on decided not to apply to have those preserves wholly owned by the Trust removed from tax rolls. Support for what the Trust could accomplish grew as more details about conservation easements and the Trust's activities became understood.
Years of Development and Expansion
Bob Myhr became executive director in 1985 and, over the 17 years of his tenure, developed Trust operations, greatly expanded the acreage preserved, and fostered a growing membership. Initially there was much to learn about the properties SJPT was overseeing including, by the end of that first year, a 393-acre conservation easement on Lopez farmland as well as property gifts on Guemes, San Juan, and Decatur islands. Myhr found that the fledgling organization needed structure, better recordkeeping, and documentation. A mission statement was needed to guide the organization and priority projects had to be identified. He was eager to expand the board of trustees, focusing on finding recognized community leaders and residents with special interest in conservation.
Acquisition has always been just the beginning of the Trust's responsibility for a property. Stewardship of the conservation easements and wholly owned preserves absorbs extensive time and resources. As part of the acquisition process SJPT prepares a baseline study for each property, with descriptive text of the land's conservation value as well as lists of flora and fauna and other detailed information supplemented by maps and photos. Then each property is monitored annually for compliance with the contractual restrictions, and updated lists, maps, and photo records are prepared. Projects such as invasive-species removal are planned. Landowners of conservation easements are consulted and boundaries verified. In 1986 Myhr hired a land steward (initially part-time) as the Trust's second staff member. Volunteers, who had stepped up at the outset to assist with stewardship, continued to be indispensable.
The Trust began taking a more proactive approach to educating the community and instituted activities such as summer lecture series, visits to conservation easements on private properties, and the always-popular spring wildflower walks to involve residents and visitors and demonstrate some of the benefits of preservation. SJPT had its first booth at the county fair in 1985, and a slide program was created for showing to interested community groups. There was much discussion about how to expand public-relations efforts and the need to highlight accomplishments, identify communication targets, and establish more personal contacts throughout the islands. Creating a newsletter directed to key landowners, attorneys, local officials, trust officers, seasonal residents, and other interested parties was a priority, and the first issue went out in 1985. Through changes in format and title over the years the newsletter has continuously offered informative articles (often featuring islanders' art and photography) on new Trust acquisitions and activities and conservation topics of local interest.
SJPT was an early member of the Land Trust Alliance (LTA), established in 1982 to facilitate communication among the nation's land trusts, encourage sharing of concerns and knowledge, advocate for trusts with government agencies, and engage in professional development. Myhr worked closely with the LTA and served on its board for several years. Little more than a decade after the Trust's founding, members learned that "as one of the country's more experienced and innovative land trusts, [SJPT] provides advice, examples of creative projects, and model policies and procedures for LTA to share with land trusts across the nation" (Newsletter, Winter 1994).
SJPT's activities were varied. One of the first instances of a concerted neighborhood conservation effort saw several contiguous parcels of land on Orcas Island's Entrance Mountain, visible to ferry riders approaching the dock, combined beginning in the late 1980s to create 230 acres of conservation easements, assuring that they would not be clear-cut or subdivided as had other sites in the area. One of the owners noted that he would still be able to build on his property, but the residence, with a fine water view, would be at the base of the mountain while the area seen from the water would be preserved. The Trust, which had received a $21,000 grant from the Puget Sound Water Authority, declared 1988 to be "The Year of Wetland Protection" and featured a variety of special wetlands-focused programs and activities. A new booklet was published to inform landowners of tax and other issues related to conservation easements. The Trust adopted the LTA standards, now required of all LTA members, to assure compliance with the highest levels of ethical and organizational integrity. And the first steps were finally taken toward a formal San Juan County commitment to conservation in the islands.
The San Juan Preservation Trust and the San Juan County Land Bank
In 1989 San Juan County's planning department was considering including open space allocation in the county's comprehensive land-use plan, and the Trust assisted county staff with planning and budget preparation for an inventory of open-space properties. At the same time discussions began about formation of a land bank that could undertake conservation projects with financing provided by a 1 percent tax on county property sales. By 1991, the San Juan County Land Bank had been established, and the SJPT annual report for that year noted that "at the request of the Land Bank Commission, the Trust served as an unpaid consultant during the Land Bank's organizational and start-up phase" (Newsletter, Spring 1992).
There was concern among SJPT staff and trustees from the outset that the public would confuse the two organizations and not understand the fundamental differences: SJPT acquires property and its operations are financed entirely through private land and monetary donations and grants. It often operates without public note, working quietly with property owners who wish to protect land that may not have public access. The Trust considers possible properties based on a detailed set of criteria and, with private funding, can move quickly to purchase if an important piece of land comes on the market. The Land Bank, as a part of the county government, is required to hold public meetings, to air the details of all transactions, and to follow government rules for use of tax funds and the provision of public access.
Over the years, concerns about confusion have been warranted. Nonetheless, a working relationship has evolved and, as explained in a 2018 issue of the Trust newsletter, "While there are fundamental differences between San Juan Preservation Trust and Land Bank, these differences have given rise to complementary strengths. The two organizations consult each other frequently, always searching for opportunities when our combined strengths could result in a conservation victory that neither of us could pull off individually" ("Partners ..."). Through this cooperation some of the largest conservation projects in the islands have come to fruition.
Trust Collaborations and Activities
Land acquisition and stewardship for properties owned or monitored by the Trust were not SJPT's only activities. In 1991, for example, the Trust was awarded a grant for an eagle-behavior study to be undertaken primarily by volunteers. A few years later the Trust joined with The Trumpeter Swan Society as co-sponsor of an annual swan survey in the San Juans, now coordinated with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and still on the Trust calendar in 2019. And in 1999 the Trust assisted HeronLink to expand a volunteer network trained to collect data on herons in the San Juan Islands. Volunteers have, from the outset, been essential to almost every aspect of the Trust's activities, and their contributions as trustees, in stewardship, office assistance, photography, computer assistance, legal and financial advising, and so many other supportive roles have been crucial to the Trust's success.
An important publication was created with a generous grant from the Bullitt Foundation. A Place in the Islands: How Private Landowners Shape the Future of the San Juans, meticulously designed with striking photographs and practical, informative text, urged owners to consider how to best manage their properties and plan building projects so as to protect open spaces, island vistas, and environmentally sensitive areas. Helping conserve undeveloped areas on a property can, it explained, "protect the value of your investment, give you pleasure, and bring you closer to your land and community" (A Place ..., 3). Working with real-estate transaction listings, the Trust made sure that every new property owner received a copy. Bob Myhr considered this 1995 publication one of the major accomplishments of his time as executive director.
By its 20th anniversary in 1999, the Trust was a thriving organization that could assert with pride that it "is dedicated to the preservation of the islands, acts with integrity, is committed to excellence, encourages private, voluntary participation in land conservation, provides careful, on-going stewardship of protected lands, offers opportunities for community education, [and] is a non-partisan advocate for conservation" (20th Anniversary Report ...).
Into the Twenty-first Century
The beginning of the new century brought increasing Trust activity and a change of leadership. Bob Myhr retired in 2002 and was succeeded by Tim Seifert, who had spent childhood summers on Waldron Island and treasured his early experiences with the islands' natural areas. Acquisition of conservation easements continued to grow, but there was also increasing interest in undertaking preservation of larger land tracts and in cooperating with the Land Bank and other organizations in conservation planning. Increased public access to some conserved properties was facilitated and more signage added to foster visitors' understanding of the value of these lands. And convincing the public that conservation was compatible with private ownership continued to be emphasized. "We have found that we can effectively protect the future of our islands without undermining important societal values like private property rights, private land ownership, and the ability of our free market system to recognize and prioritize value," Seifert wrote ("Preservation Briefs" Winter 2003). Establishing strong relationships with landowners throughout the islands was essential, he added.
In August 2005 a 1,578-acre parcel high on Orcas Island's Turtleback Mountain was put on the market for $18.5 million, and a developer promptly offered the full asking price. The zoning allowed for 78 private homes on 20-acre sites. This was one of the "most significant and vulnerable properties in the San Juan Islands" ("The Campaign ..."), and it was urgent that the beautiful landscape, visible throughout the islands, be saved from development. The seller recognized the conservation value of the property and agreed to hold it for three months to allow the Trust to organize financing to match the developer's offer. It was an enormous gamble, as the fundraising goal far exceeded any previous Trust undertaking and time was short. Together, the San Juan Preservation Trust, the San Juan County Land Bank, and the Trust for Public Land worked to obtain the needed sum. The Trust spearheaded the campaign, and just days before the closing date secured the funding. The Land Bank now owns and manages the property while the Trust holds the conservation easement on it, assuring permanent preservation with public access. For the Trust it was a turning point. "Turtleback changed everything" (Seifert interview). It demonstrated to SJPT staff and trustees that undertaking large acquisition projects was feasible and that support for them could be obtained from throughout the county and beyond. Residents were concerned not just about what happened on their own islands, but about the future of the archipelago as a whole.
Collaboration has been effective in many Trust projects. In 2007 the Trust, working with the American Bird Conservancy, the Ecostudies Institute, and the San Juan Islands chapter of the Audubon Society, began a five-year bluebird-restoration project. Western bluebirds had been common in the islands until the 1960s, when the local habitat had become so degraded that they no longer migrated north to the islands. More than 250 residents accepted nesting boxes and monitored their use. Bluebirds were re-introduced to the islands, and nesting pairs have returned and continue to increase in numbers. In 2009 a partnership between SJPT, the Skagit Land Trust, and Guemes Island residents created the Guemes Mountain and Valley Conservation Area, leading to the protection of 206 acres connected to 500 acres of public and private land designated for conservation. And the Skagit Land Trust was supportive when, the following year, the Trust was able to purchase, at auction, almost-entirely-untouched Vendovi Island with its diverse habitats including plants long lost from other islands. Fundraising for Vendovi, located between Guemes and Lummi Islands, presented a special challenge because of its isolation and because it was not widely known, but the funding campaign successfully explained to potential donors the importance of conserving this unique island while providing access for educational programs, scientific study, and low-impact public recreation.
A milestone was reached in 2012 when the Trust received national accreditation from the Land Trust Alliance after a rigorous verification process including audits of records and a review of policies and procedures followed by all SJPT personnel (paid, consultants, volunteers). The accreditation was successfully renewed in 2017, and attests to the high standards and quality of the Trust's work.
Also in 2017, the Trust inaugurated an online e-newsletter, Postcards from the Islands, to supplement the quarterly Island Dispatch received in the mail. It offers brief news of undertakings (such as the Salish Seeds Project in partnership with the Land Bank), personnel, and topics of interest including, for example, the Trust's role in a multi-agency effort to prevent extinction of the Island Marble butterfly, a species unique to San Juan Island.
Tim Seifert retired as executive director in 2018 after 16 years of dramatic growth in SJPT membership and land conserved, and greatly increased community involvement in Trust activities. Angela Anderson, who succeeded him, had a busy first year. In an early message to newsletter readers she identified three notable changes that will affect the Trust's future work and require creative approaches to planning and problem solving: (1) changing climate with more wildfire danger, intrusion and persistence of invasive species, and degraded biodiversity and waterways; (2) changing demographics, and the need to engage the next generations in conservation efforts; and (3) changing resource demands including stewardship challenges for the increasing number of properties protected by SJPT. As the Trust approached its 40th anniversary in 2019, Anderson, the governing board, and staff focused on developing a new vision and strategic plan for SJPT, elicited community input, and formulated a new Trust mission statement. Summarized succinctly in three words -- "Conserve. Care. Connect." -- it put the emphasis moving forward on continuing conservation efforts to preserve the islands' scenic beauty and ecosystems, maintaining a strong commitment to stewardship, and connecting "people to nature, to each other, and to the Preservation Trust" ("Conserve ...").
Since its inception the San Juan Preservation Trust has made it possible for landowners to preserve environments that they treasure, protected stunning landscapes and threatened habitats, and assured that coming generations will be able to experience these special places. It is an extraordinary, permanent legacy that will continue to be cherished by future islanders and visitors.