$1.5 million grant could spare golden paintbrush

This week, the Whidbey-Camano Land Trust received a key that opens the door to begin negotiations with Seattle Pacific University to buy 33 acres of the Bocker Reserve in Coupeville.

That key comes in the form of a $1.5 million grant awarded Monday by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Bocker Reserve, which is owned by Seattle Pacific University, is environmentally significant because it is home to one of 11 known populations of golden paintbrush remaining in the world. Golden paintbrush is listed as an endangered plant species because much of its habitat on grassy plains and coastal bluffs has been lost to residential, agricultural and commercial development.

Pat Powell, executive director of the land trust, said her organization wants the golden paintbrush population to be restored to more historic levels. The plant's population in the Bocker Reserve has diminished in recent years due to invasive plants that have cropped up in the area.

The Whidbey-Camano Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy and the Department of Natural Resources are partnering to restore and manage golden paintbrush -- which is one of the reasons the money was awarded.

"It's appealing because it (golden paintbrush) is ecologically significant," said Joanne Stellini, a biologist for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. "The Fish and Wildlife Service has an interest in ensuring they remain."

However, before plans to restore the endangered plant can go forward, the land has to be purchased from Seattle Pacific University.

The Seattle-based university is selling the land to help fund planned expansion of the Casey Conference Center.

SPU wants to increase the number of beds in the conference center, add additional conference space and the infrastructure to accommodate the expansion.

The 33-acre Bocker Reserve is currently divided into five lots, each with a waterfront view, according to the grant application from the land trust.

The land trust stated in its grant application that the threat to the golden paintbrush populations is real and imminent and development in the area would eliminate the endangered plant.

Stellini pointed out that even partial development could destroy paintbrush because housing could interfere with pollination.

Powell said the land trust has to raise another $500,000 as a requirement to receive the federal money.

Officials from Seattle Pacific University and the Whidbey-Camano Land Trust still have to begin negotiations and the land also needs to be appraised.

Sue Hizon, coordinator of planning and development for SPU, said the university has been open to negotiating with the land trust.

She added that several other people have contacted the university about the Bocker Reserve but SPU isn't actively marketing the land.

The trust's emergence as a potential buyer for the Bocker Reserve comes as the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board heard arguments yesterday from SPU and the Whidbey Environmental Action Network concerning a recent rezone to allow for the conference center's expansion.

Despite spending most of Tuesday morning deliberating, the hearings board isn't expected to render a decision until mid August.

Hizon said that, regardless of the ruling of the hearings board, the Bocker Reserve will eventually be sold and the money from the sale will be pumped into the Casey Conference Center.

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