With its headwaters in the Twin Sisters, Skookum Creek is the largest contributor of the South Fork of Nooksack River, according to the Whatcom Land Trust website. // Photo courtesy of Amanda McKay and the Whatcom Land Trust
By Ian Ferguson
Thirty miles from the heart of Bellingham lies a vast forest whose trees have stood for a millenium; surviving devastating fires, earthquakes and the test of time.
Untouched by human encroachment, the forest is teeming with an abundance of healthy wildlife, and in 1993 it was promised to stay that way when the Whatcom Land Trust and Western sought to purchase and protect the land.
Now called the Canyon Lake Community Forest, the land will remain wild and left to its own devices for eternity.
This becomes the future of Whatcom County forests when the Whatcom Land Trust gets involved.
The Land Trust is a nonprofit organization formed in 1983 with an original intention to protect farmlands in Whatcom County. Now the trust works to protect the special areas of Whatcom County, whether that be places for recreation, agricultural land protection or species protection.
Since its establishment in 1983, the Land Trust has revved-up their conservation efforts; doubling their acreage of conserved properties to over 23,000 acres in the last five years. Currently the Land Trust is working on a project they call their most urgent conservation effort in history.
Land Trust Executive Director Rich Bowers said the group is working to conserve a portion of Skookum Creek, which is located in the South Fork of the Nooksack River. If successful, the project would protect over 1,250 acres of land along 2.3 miles of Skookum Creek, an important piece of the South Fork watershed.
“It’s a big year, we usually don’t jump in numbers like that,” Bowers said.
The acquisition of Skookum Creek is a $4 million campaign that the Land Trust hopes to close by the end of February 2019, Bowers said. The project is funded entirely by private donors, making it the first time the Land Trust has funded a purchase without state or federal funding.
“It’s a Whatcom County project and I think that is pretty cool,” Bowers said. “We’ve never done that before.”
According to the Whatcom Land Trust fall 2018 newsletter, the protection of Skookum Creek is one of the most important conservation issues in the history of Whatcom County. Bowers said restoration of the area is an important fight for salmon and forest restoration because already roughly 800 acres of the Skookum Creek area is a clear-cut forest, meaning none of the original forest lands remain.
With the enactment of the restoration process, the Land Trust and community will embark on a generational vision of restoring the forests to their old-growth potential, Bowers said.
According to the newsletter, the preservation of Skookum Creek will ensure a healthy watershed and increased climate change resilience, two factors that are important for the restoration of salmon.
In 2018, the Land Trust helped to conserve 125 acres on Governors Point and the 2,240 acres on Galbraith Mountain in partnership with Galbraith Tree Farm, LLC and the City of Bellingham.
“It has been a really great summer for land protection,” Bowers said.
A primary tool in the Land Trust’s arsenal is the conservation easement, which according to Bowers, is a legally-binding document between a land owner and the Land Trust. The document states that the land over which the organization is discussing will never be used for further development. The Trust then is responsible to monitor and defend it if it ever goes court.
“When we’re talking about forever, that’s a really hard thing to grasp,” Bowers said. “Not only is the land forever, but in some form, the Land Trust has to be forever as well.”
Bowers said a looming question for the Land Trust is how much land they can handle. In the last five years, they have doubled their land holdings and Bowers said spreading the organization too thin is a concern.
“I would expect that we will be very strategic in buying new lands in the future just because we can’t manage it,” Bowers said.
However, conservation opportunities keep coming for the Trust and Bowers said they’re hard to say no to deal with this issue, they have increased their staff and are reaching into the community for support and involvement. As of now, the Land Trust currently has five full-time and five part-time employees.
Amanda McKay, part-time communications specialist, said her initial involvement with the Land Trust began with a six-month internship through the Huxley College of the Environment. When it came time for her to graduate, she reached out to the Trust looking to volunteer, and was instead offered a position.
McKay said her work with the Land Trust has expanded her circle by putting her in direct contact with community members and organizations that work tirelessly toward making Whatcom County better for all.
As a nonprofit organization, the Land Trust relies on community volunteers and donors. Part of McKay’s job is to reach out to the community to find new groups of people interested in supporting them.
Despite working to engage the community, McKay said the Land Trust is still not well-known among Western students, which is something they want to change.
According to Bowers, the trust had around six interns from Western in the last year. They also hire three students for work-study every quarter – either from Whatcom Community College or Western.
Besides that, McKay said there are many opportunities for students to get involved. Throughout most of the year, the Land Trust hosts two volunteer opportunities every week. She said this gives students the opportunity to branch out in the community.
Bowers said the value of private land conservation is more important than ever. Moving forward, he doesn’t think the country can count on conservation support from the federal government.
“As long as I’ve been alive, the national parks has been this great shining beacon of how you can protect lands, and now we don’t know where they’re going to wind up,” Bowers said. “So now is the time for people who own land and have special values on their property that they care about to say ‘I want to protect this.’”
Before moving to Bellingham 18 years ago, Bowers did river conservation work on the East Coast. He said an hour out of any major city on the East Coast is basically a bedroom city, a seemingly endless road of houses in every direction.
“Go to Philly, go to Pittsburgh, go to Boston — try to find a green space or build a new one, it’s almost impossible,” Bowers said.
According to Bowers, this fate is all too possible for Whatcom County and the Land Trust’s main goal is, and always has been, to protect the special and important lands in the midst of inevitable growth.
“Protect it now while you have the opportunity and while you can afford it,” he said.