Ryan Elting, director of conservation at the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, walks along the beach and looks up at the cliffs that line the property June 10 at the Keystone Preserve site near Coupeville, Washington. Elting said the natural erosion of the cliffs provides vital nutrients to adjacent marine habitat. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
WHIDBEY ISLAND – Staff at the Whidbey Camano Land Trust knew they had to act fast when a 226-acre beachfront property south of Coupeville came on the market last December.
From the water, boaters may have seen the Red House, the old windmill and the grazing cattle atop the cliffs. The property near Keystone is home to one of the oldest farms on Whidbey Island. It also has a large forest and a long beach.
The site was in danger of being sold and developed into 22 high-end homes.
In late April, the land trust purchased the property for $9.1 million, the most expensive purchase in the nonprofit’s nearly four-decade history. Conservation Director Ryan Elting said “emergency acquisition” was needed to protect the site’s 175 acres of forest and 3,500 feet of near-pristine shoreline.
“We don’t have a lot of opportunities to protect a piece of habitat that size,” Elting said.
The purchase of the property was made possible through two bridging loans, one from a private donor and the other from the regional lender Craft3. The land trust plans to repay the loans with state and federal grants and private fundraising, Elting said.
The nonprofit organization protects and manages approximately 10,000 acres of parks and natural areas in Island County. With her new property, called Keystone Preserve, she will focus on habitat improvement and marine restoration. There are also plans to open access to the public beach from 2024, as well as a network of trails.
The land trust has partnered with the organic farm school to manage the site. The non-profit Whidbey Island School will oversee the 50 acres of meadow and farm.
Elting said the vision is for Keystone Preserve to become “a demonstration site for ecological restoration, habitat improvement and regenerative agriculture, and how it can all work together.”
On a recent beach walk at Keystone Preserve, Elting picked up a handful of sand and gravel and searched for tiny forage fish eggs. Small fish, which lay their eggs on beaches like this, are an important food source for salmon and other predators.
The land trust will work with Island County Sound Water Stewards to monitor the beach. The group of trained volunteers work on projects such as forage fish surveys.
Further down the beach, Elting stopped at “feeder bluffs,” special Puget Sound cliffs that are constantly eroding. He said the cliffs provide “a slow steady supply of nutrients” for plants and animals. When people build structures like bulkhead walls to stop erosion, they block the flow of sediment.
Elting noted that Keystone Preserve beach is mostly free of these barriers.
“(The land trust) is looking for natural stretches of shoreline so they aren’t developed and we don’t have to restore them,” he said.
In the cliffs, birds such as eagles and pigeon guillemots have taken up residence.
Closer to the house there is a short section of bulkhead and a rock wall. Elting said the land trust plans to remove the 300-foot-long barriers as well as the creosote-treated wood. The house will be removed and the building materials recycled.
Other restoration plans include adding native plant buffers, replanting trees, and restoring a creek.
The property was settled by Captain William Robertson and his family in 1854, according to a biography by a local historian. They named her Lea Bluff. Before the arrival of white settlers, the people of Lower Skagit grew camas on the prairie and relied on the plant for food, the historian wrote.
The farm has changed hands several times. The most recent owners raised hay and Black Angus cattle.
The organic farm school plans to manage the farm with regenerative practices to build soil health. The long-term goal is to produce food for the community.
Judy Feldman, executive director of the agricultural school, said the school hopes to give new farmers access to Keystone Preserve land. The school currently offers an intensive seven-month training program for beginning farmers on South Whidbey Island.
Feldman said the school plans to diversify crops into hay fields and use part of the site for seed production of cover crops. Another idea is to grow reserve vegetables, such as carrots and beets, that will keep through the winter.
The land trust will retain the old barn on the property and lease it to the farm school.
For now, the school is focused on learning about the land, she said. Students have taken soil tests and will focus on soil improvement.