Cultivating Conservation—Land&People

Frank Peryea and Betsy Beers-Peryea weren't planning to save an icon. They were looking to build a new home. But when Beers-Peryea picked up the real estate insert of her local paper back in early 2000, they found a new focus.

"I was sitting in our kitchen, paging through the paper, and read 'House for Sale,' 'Lot for Sale,' 'Property for Sale,' then 'Rock for Sale.' There was Castle Rock for sale," she recalls. "I was dumbfounded. I could see Castle Rock from my back deck. We thought it was on public land."

A local landmark, Castle Rock tops a rocky ridge in the sagebrush-studded foothills near Wenatchee, a city of 30,000 people in Chelan County in north-central Washington. The Peryeas, both scientists at Washington State University's Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, first hiked the ridge while taking a break from their studies in the 1970s. These days they enjoy gazing at the feature they call "the rocky nose" while sipping their morning coffee.

The idea of buying and preserving Castle Rock took hold of the couple. "There was a lot of talk about the sale in town—wild rumors about plans to put a tram up the rock's side, or a restaurant on top," says Beers-Peryea. "It was a horrifying thought."

Beers-Peryea's family farm in Michigan had just been sold after a mall moved in next door and made farming no longer feasible. "We used the money from the sale to purchase Castle Rock," she says. "Knowing we were saving land here at home made losing the farm a lot easier."

The Peryeas ultimately bought the whole ridgeline around Castle Rock, 400 acres. They maintain the property as open space and allow access to its trails. "We could do something to preserve the space, so we did," says Peryea. "There is this desire in the area to carve up the hills to put in homes. But if you bulldoze a road, you scar the hills forever. We didn't want to see that here."

The Peryeas are not the only Wenatchee Valley residents with their minds on conservation. The protection of Castle Rock is part of a larger community-led effort to preserve land and shape growth across the fast-developing region. Over the last few years, residents have come together for three conservation planning efforts led by The Trust for Public Land (TPL). Several successful projects have already been accomplished or launched, including the preservation of 2,500 acres south of Wenatchee. And the local Chelan-Douglas Land Trust (CDLT) has transformed itself from a scrappy group of volunteers into a professional and highly successful land preservation organization of 740 active members, including the Peryeas.

In a region that values independence—and where past conservation efforts have been met with skepticism by many residents—farmers, trail advocates, real estate developers, and conservationists are finding common ground and creating a model for conservation in rural communities threatened by growth.

"I think a lot of us took the landscape for granted until it began disappearing at an alarming rate," says Beers-Peryea. "We're ready to embrace a culture of conservation."

Plans for a Region at Risk

A road sign outside Wenatchee welcomes visitors to the "Apple Capital of the World," and it could be argued that there is no better place on the planet to grow tree fruit. The region boasts 300 days of sunshine a year and ample irrigation water from streams flowing out of the snow-capped Cascade Mountains or from the Wenatchee River as it threads the valley on its way southeast to the Columbia River.

But in the last ten years, the greater Wenatchee Valley has become a hot spot in which to retire, relocate, and recreate. Visitors are lured by scenic views; abundant fish and wildlife; whitewater rapids; pinnacles to climb; miles of hiking, skiing, biking, and equestrian trails; and the weather—a welcome break from the gray skies of Seattle, only two hours away.

With the region's population projected to increase by 30 percent in the next 15 years, and with few coordinated efforts between the cities and the county to guide growth, the landscape faces dramatic change. Already many of the apple, pear, and cherry orchards have been converted to residential use, as the development value of land puts it out of reach for agriculture. According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, the number of farms in Chelan County declined more than 20 percent between 2002 and 2007, while harvested acres decreased nearly 30 percent over those years. If growth remains unchecked, the resulting fragmentation of the landscape could undermine the rural character of the entire region.

The first step in trying to address this threat was taken in 2007 with the release of The Wenatchee Watershed Vision, developed by TPL in partnership with CDLT and The Nature Conservancy and based on interviews with local farmers, agency personnel, and conservationists. Like much of TPL's and CDLT's work in the Wenatchee Valley, the vision document was supported in part by the Icicle Fund, a creative philanthropic effort that targets preserving the region's sense of place and quality of life.

Looking at the entire watershed, from the crest of the Cascades to the sun-bleached steppes along the Columbia River, the vision document describes the direction of upcoming growth and development along with challenges and opportunities in protecting land for agriculture, wildlife habitat, and recreation. A companion study highlighted how and where funds might be raised for protecting land.

"The Wenatchee Valley has seen a lot of change in the last 15 years," says Kitty Craig, the TPL program manager responsible for conservation planning in Washington State. "We wanted to take a step back and tell that story and paint a picture of a more balanced vision moving forward— one that plans for new growth but protects the things people care about most."

The watershed vision document was soon followed by a closer analysis of the Stemlit Basin, south of Wenatchee. The Washington Department of Natural Resources had announced plans to sell four land parcels totaling 2,500 acres as part of a larger land exchange. The prospect that this land might be developed sparked an outcry among an unlikely alliance of fruit growers who feared losing water for irrigation, hunters and conservationists worried about losing elk habitat, and snowmobile and off-road enthusiasts who wished to preserve access to the land.

At the request of the county and with the support of the Icicle Fund, TPL launched a collaborative process to create the The Stemlit–Squilchuck Community Vision. At workshops and meetings, people from widely varied backgrounds talked, often for the first time, about how they used land in the basin and what land-based resources and experiences they hoped to retain or enhance. TPL combined this local knowledge with scientific data and used Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to map important areas in the watershed—a process TPL refers to as "greenprinting."

"Since people were so invested, they took time to understand the process and reach a consensus," says Mike Kaputa, director of the Chelan County Department of Natural Resources. "They loved the process." In subsequent meetings with state personnel, county commissioners referenced the vision document to show how resources could be affected by development. These findings helped convince the state to abandon the sale. The land remains in public ownership and is managed through a coordinated effort by state and county agencies.

Saving the Foothills

At a scenic overlook above the Horse Lake trailhead, Bob Bugert, executive director of CDLT, pauses to scan the foothills due west of Wenatchee. Although drying out after a wet winter, on this May day the hills sport showy patches of late spring wildflowers, tawny thickets of bitterbrush, blue bunch wheatgrass, and fragrant blue sage. Hawks and turkey vultures circle above, while meadowlarks converse in song. From the trailhead—protected last November by CDLT with support from the Icicle Fund and other donors—trails wind for 40 miles through public and private land, one passing near Castle Rock.

"A person could spend all day walking the foothills," Bugert says. "The more time you spend up here, the more you cherish the landscape."

Under current zoning, 4,000 new homes could be built in the more than 16,000 acres of foothills west of Wenatchee, threatening views, trail access, and wildlife habitat. In 2008, the city studied the prospective roads and other infrastructure that would be required to accommodate this development. When the findings were released, showing roads crisscrossing the foothills, residents declared, "We don't want this."

In response, Wenatchee officials invited TPL and CDLT to launch a collaborative process specifically targeting the foothills. "Even groups that are often on the opposite side of the fence, like the Native Plant Society and the Homebuilders Association, worked side by side on the plan," says Bugert. "We all agreed the foothills are special." At one public workshop, attendees were asked to provide feedback on the draft plan by placing orange stickers next to the ideas they liked best. Ideas with the most support included revising city and county codes that guide development, promoting clustering of homes, and expanding the trail system.

Supported by the Icicle Fund and other private and public sources and released in July 2010, The Wenatchee Foothills Community Strategy articulates a long-term vision and a six-year plan to guide action and investment—including ways to raise money to purchase land for public open space and for conservation easements that prevent development.

"We've got a great combination of engaged landowners. Prominent community members are ready to lead a capital campaign. Even development interests are on board—they understand that views and trails are an amenity," says Bugert.

"If we do this right, it will benefit the whole community." One participant in the process was Bart Clennon, a local fruit grower and developer who owns land in and around the foothills, much of it planted in neat rows of pear, apple, and cherry trees. Clennon was impressed by the meetings.

"Everything was laid out," he says. "You could talk about the different alternatives and think things through. They led you to rational conclusions. If you'd tried to sell me the same conclusions from the start, I wouldn't have gotten there." Clennon admits that his interest in conservation started slowly and has grown as he's gotten older. "You start thinking more long term about what it means to be able to get out and walk the land," he says.

Clennon is currently working with TPL to preserve 50 acres he owns in the central foothills. Trails wind through his property and up to adjacent public land, attracting hikers, runners, cyclists, and solace-seekers. A road ends where the land starts, making it a natural place for a trailhead. However, it's also a natural place into which an adjacent high-end subdivision could be expanded. Although Clennon would much rather see naked hills than homes on this piece of property, he and other landowners face an economic reality.

"A lot of land in the foothills is made accessible because of the good graces of landowners, and that's not sustainable," says CDLT's Bugert. "Landowners pay property taxes and maintain land that residents and visitors enjoy. There needs to be a way to compensate them. The foothills strategy offers alternatives to make that funding possible." Clennon is optimistic that working with TPL to protect his land for a possible trailhead could help build even more local support for conservation. "If there are more formal trailheads where people can get out and have a wonderful time, they'll want to make sure these places are around forever," he says.

Anne Webster is a Seattle-based writer specializing in conservation and travel. She can be reached at anne@websterink.com.