Island Prairie — Land&People

The stair climb from beach to bluff is brief, a steep rise but readily gained without shortness of breath. Atop Ebey's Landing, in the cool angled light of winter, centuries collapse into one evanescent moment. Time is caught off guard.

Balanced on prevailing southwest winds, bald eagles skim the rocky lee shore of Washington's Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. Westward, across Admiralty Inlet, the Olympic Mountains stand out sharply in the gloaming. Small powercraft leave shimmer trails on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The usual determined divisions of past and present fail here, the line between one era and another as fuzzy as the fading horizon separating polished gray sea and tarnished gray sky. At Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve, both human and natural histories are respected.

The 17,400-acre reserve encompasses the historic seaport town of Coupeville, as well as Fort Ebey and Fort Casey state parks, Keystone Ferry–from which state ferries depart for Port Townsend and the Olympic Peninsula–rocky beaches and high bluffs, and more than 5,000 acres of natural prairie. At the heart of the reserve is Ebey's Prairie, the remains of a prehistoric lake bed. Along the prairie's margins, withered clumps of Idaho fescue and wild bouquets of dried goldenrod, yarrow, and fleabane rustle in the rising wind. Winter remnants of wild camas–lilaceous, protein-rich plants once jealously guarded by Northwest Indians–stipple the ground.

It is the prairie–its patchwork of farm fields spread before you like a rumpled quilt–that endows the reserve with a sense of permanence in an increasingly transient world. "I was drawn to . . . that golden prairie . . . as though to home," says Albert Heath, 87, who moved to the island following World War II. A founder of the citizens group Friends of Ebey's Prairie, which has fought tenaciously to save the prairie from development, Heath was the first local landowner to grant scenic easements on his property, which stretches from bluff to tidewater.

"I'd never felt so much a part of the land," Heath says, explaining his decision to give up the lucrative development rights. "We can't ever let developers carve up that beautiful landscape–that would be like letting them dismember us. That land–it's me, it's you."

When the reserve was created by an act of Congress, in 1978, it represented an unprecedented attempt to preserve a 150-year-old balance between natural landscapes and human development.

"In reality the land stood to be subdivided and sold," says Stephanie Taylor, who has headed TPL's efforts to conserve the rural character of Whidbey Island. Responding to imminent sale of one of the island's historic farms to developers, local residents appealed to Congress during the 1970s to protect their agricultural heritage. The result was Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve, a unique federal designation that seeks to protect an area's historic and cultural assets–public beaches, hiking trails, historic military forts, and working farms–while respecting the rights of the private property owners and commercial businesses within reserve boundaries.

Unlike a national park, however, reserve status does not guarantee protection from development. Charged with balancing those often opposing forces is the all-volunteer Trust Board of Ebey's Landing, composed of local jurisdictions and interested citizens. "This is a reserve–not a preserve," says reserve manager Rob Harbour. "There will be change. How much is up to us."

Stories in the Soil

Though barely an hour from Seattle's half- million people, the reserve retains the essence of the natural wonders that have drawn humans for 10,000 years. There is evidence that early Native Americans regularly burned and cleared the prairie to maintain the open fields where camas and bracken fern grew. By the 19th century, Native Americans were growing potatoes on the prairie, a new staple acquired from British explorers. Later, in 1850, disillusioned California Forty-niners sailed up the inlet and landed here, seeking the kind of wealth that sustains generations: fertile ground.

Here is some of the richest farmland in the West, with deep, deep topsoil as black and fine as espresso grounds. Boasting the world record for bushels of wheat raised on nonirrigated land, these fields are famous locally for producing premium potatoes, peas, and the sweetest heirloom squash to grace a dinner table. Straying onto a freshly plowed field, sinking ankle-deep in steaming earth, you wonder if you too might not take root.

One hundred and fifty years ago, William Ballinger Engle was among those who arrived here and staked a claim under the Donation Lands Claim Act. He arrived on a ship commanded by Captain Thomas Coupe, after whom the historic town of Coupeville is named. Engle, together with his wife, Flora, built a home, a farm, a community. When Colonel Isaac Neff Ebey, the first Euro-American to stake a land claim here, was beheaded by Indians seeking revenge for the death of a chief, Engle was the first to respond to cries for help. And it was William Engle who built the coffin for Ebey's body.

In 1873, William Engle decided to return to his childhood home in Burlington County, New Jersey. But his love of the island was too strong. He could not abandon his prairie farm. Five generations later, despite disastrous financial setbacks, Engles are still working the prairie. "There's Engle sweat and there's Engle blood in this soil, and maybe more tears than rain," says Bob Engle, 60. "We've never made a lot of money and probably never will, but we've got so much you can't put a dollar tag on. We've got a connection to this earth.

That connection was nearly broken and a significant piece of the prairie lost when, after struggling financially for years, Engle Farms filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan in 1998 and began liquidating assets to pay off creditors. Like so many other family-owned farms, Engle Farms had been bullied by rising interest rates, plummeting produce and dairy prices, rapidly consolidating markets, and increasing global competition.

"Last thing we wanted was to sell to somebody who'd carve up the land, bulldoze the milking sheds and barns, pave over the fields, and build mini-mansions and ranchettes–but our creditors were bearing down hard," says Len Engle, 59, who, with his brother, Bob, operates Engle Farms. Weatherbeaten men, with soil-stained hands and brows as furrowed as the fields they're preparing to sow with winter wheat, the Engles started farming before they started school. Before they could shave, both men knew they wanted to stay on the land. "If our family had cared about making money, half this valley would be covered with houses and we'd be millionaires," Len Engle adds. "But I'm a farmer for a reason: I love watching grain grow. I love making hay. I love watching calves born. I love waking up every day . . . feeling about as close to God and Mother Nature as a man can stand to get."

Just as the Engles' farm was about to be sold to pay creditors, TPL stepped in. With an appropriation from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, secured with the strong support of Washington's congressional delegation and the National Park Service, TPL bought 304 acres of the Engles' 415-acre farm. On the remaining 111 acres, TPL purchased a conservation easement from the Engles. Both the land and the conservation easement were conveyed to the Park Service, which leased the property back to the Engles.

"From the time we were little boys until we were grown men, we worked this land alongside our dad, just like he'd done with his own father," Bob Engle says. "Our dad loved this land. He taught us what stewardship is all about. "I'm getting older and I'm already pretty banged up," he adds, rubbing joints aching from years of manual labor. "But, like my dad, I hope to work this farm 'til I die."

What Price Farmland?

The same pressures that contributed to the Engle Farms bankruptcy are at work throughout the Puget Sound. The Puget Sound basin is within the nation's fifth most threatened area for loss of prime farmland to development. This is part of a national trend resulting in the destruction of an estimated 1.2 million acres of farmland across the country every year.

From Don Stuart's perspective, this rapid and ongoing loss of farmland is "the most significant environmental issue of our time." Stuart is Pacific Northwest regional director for the American Farmland Trust, a national organization dedicated to stopping the loss of productive farmland and promoting farming practices leading to a healthy environment.

Stories like the Engles' are becoming more and more common, Stuart says, noting that global economics is concentrating the wealth in urban America. That trend–combined with increasing competition from foreign food growers, who pay lower wages and do not have to meet stringent environmental standards–is marginalizing the value of agricultural land and locally grown farm products.

"The upshot," Stuart says, "is that farmland is cheap–from the perspective of people who want to use it for nonagricultural purposes. But for people who want to use farmland for crops or livestock, the land becomes terribly expensive. They have to compete with urban wealth . . . with people from the cities who want to build a second home or retire in the country."

And it's the best agricultural land that's disappearing, he says. "We start by building our vacation homes, our retirement communities, our cities right on top of the best land," Stuart says. "Next thing you know, we've got sprawling metropolises–and the permanent, irreversible loss of some of the very best farmland in the country."

A Grand Experiment

One of the largest islands in the continental United States, Whidbey is the site of burgeoning commerce and military activity. The island's northern end has a naval air station, strip malls, real estate subdivisions, and the town of Oak Harbor; the southern end boasts posh shops and pricey homes. Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve, in the center of the island, is feeling population and economic pressure from both ends.

Reserve manager Rob Harbour hopes the pioneer families of the prairie will remain on the land for generations to come, but he acknowledges that represents a huge challenge. "Our farmers are facing serious pressures," says Harbour. "Land values are skyrocketing, markets are collapsing, suppliers and processors are going under or moving out, urban and suburban folks are moving in. The bottom line is, we're going to have to do more to help commercial agriculture remain viable."

In recent years, millions of private and public dollars have been raised on behalf of Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve by the Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy, local citizen organizations, the Trust Board of Ebey's Landing, and state and federal elected officials. In an effort to maintain the fragile balance between rural and historic landscapes and new development, the money has been used to purchase scenic easements and to buy waterfront and farming property at risk of development. Roughly 90 percent of the reserve remains privately owned but the heart of the reserve–Ebey's Prairie–is protected.

Together with the work of other conservation groups, TPL's efforts to preserve the cultural and natural resources within Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve is vital to helping "secure a piece of Pacific Northwest history–and a future for our farmers," Harbour says. Without such dedicated efforts, he adds, the special quality of the reserve could be lost–one tract of land, one house, one mini-mall at a time.

To a large extent, the reserve designation and the reserve itself remain a grand experiment. Many of the hard-won protections may not be appreciated for another 150 years.

"We owe a lot to the Engles and the other families who continue to farm the land," adds TPL's Stephanie Taylor. "It's through their stewardship that we are able to look out across this prairie, beyond the bluff, to the Puget Sound."

Marla Williams is a documentary filmmaker and freelance writer. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Seattle, Washington.