EVERETT — Staff at the Whidbey Camano Land Trust in Washington knew they had to act quickly 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, old windmill and cattle grazing atop the bluffs. The property near Keystone is home to one of the oldest farms on Whidbey Island. It also features a large forest and a long stretch of beach.
The site was at risk of being sold and developed into 22 high-end homes, according to the land trust.
In late April, the land trust bought the property for $9.1 million, the most expensive purchase in the nonprofit’s nearly four-decade history. Conservation director Ryan Elting said an “emergency acquisition” was needed to protect the site’s 175 acres of forest and 3,500 feet of nearly pristine shoreline.
“We don’t get many opportunities to protect a chunk of habitat that size,” Elting told The Herald.
Purchase of the property was accomplished with two bridge loans, one from a private donor and the other from regional lender Craft3. The land trust plans to repay the loans with state and federal grants and private fundraising, Elting said.
The nonprofit protects and manages about 10,000 acres of parks and natural areas in Island County. With its newest property, called the Keystone Preserve, it will focus on habitat improvement and marine restoration.
There are also plans to open public beach access as soon as 2024, as well as plans for a trail network.
The land trust has partnered with the Organic Farm School to manage the site. The nonprofit school on Whidbey Island will oversee the 50 acres of prairie and farm.
Elting said the vision is for the Keystone Preserve to become “a demonstration site for ecological restoration, habitat enhancement and regenerative farming, and how all of those can work together.”
In a recent stroll down the beach at the preserve, Elting picked up a handful of sand and gravel and looked for tiny forage fish eggs. The small fish, which lay their eggs on beaches like this one, are an important food source for salmon and other predators.
The land trust will work with the Sound Water Stewards of Island County to monitor the beach. The group of trained volunteers works on projects such as forage fish surveys.
Farther down the beach, Elting stopped at the “feeder bluffs,” special bluffs in Puget Sound that constantly erode. He said the bluffs provide “a slow and steady supply of nutrients” for plants and animals. When people build structures like bulkhead walls to stop erosion, they block the flow of sediments.
Elting noted that the Keystone Preserve beach is mostly free of these barriers.
“(The land trust) looks for natural stretches of shorelines so they don’t get developed and we don’t have to restore them,” he said.