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Plant that saved a prairie

A 33-acre shoreline property once used as a rifle range by soldiers at Camp Casey will be protected not for its historical value, but for a rare flower that dots its landscape.

This week, the Whidbey/Camano Land Trust entered into a $2 million purchase agreement this week with Seattle Pacific University to acquire the “Bocker” parcel, located along Admiralty Inlet within Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

The trust had earlier obtained a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior to purchase the property and protect the endangered plant. The deal is contingent upon the trust raising an additional $500,000 toward the purchase and $200,000 toward a stewardship endowment, said Pat Powell, executive director of the trust. The endowment, a requirement of the federal grant, will be invested so the interest income can pay for maintenance of the land in perpetuity, she said. An additional $50,000 must be raised to pay for appraisal costs and other fees associated with buying the property.

“We’re working right now on a fundraising strategy and we’ll be going out and talking to individuals and groups to tell them how unique and important this site is,” Powell said. “We hope to have most of the money raised by the end of the year.”

Golden paintbrush, once common on the Whidbey Island prairie and throughout the Vancouver Island and Puget Sound regions, is now down to 11 known populations. The yellowish perrenial is part of the snapdragon family and is on the federal threatened species list as well as on the state endangered species list. Surviving populations of golden paintbrush are isolated to Whidbey and the San Juan Islands.

The land sale does not have any bearing on the university’s ongoing effort to develop its Camp Casey Conference Center in such a way that it would attract more adults and increase revenues, said Darrel Hines, SPU’s associate vice president for business and facility services. To make that happen, the center was considering developing more of a resort atmosphere, but that effort was put on hold last January when the university backed away from a rezoning request.

Some of the income from the sale may be used in the planning process as the university looks to improve the facility in ways that are acceptable to the county and the people of Whidbey Island, he said.

As Powell and Camp Casey guest services director Mitch Richards walked along the property Monday evening, finding the plants proved difficult. About 100 plants have been mapped on the property, Powell said, but most are passed their colorful prime.

The property will be managed with the endangered perennial as the priority, she said. It will remain open to the public, but the land is little used. There is no access to the beach due to sheer cliffs, and the brush is too thick for good shoreline views.

During the early 1990s, the property contained a higher number of plants, but the numbers dropped steeply during the last decade. Restoring the population will require some simple maintenance, including removal of trees and shrubs invading the prairie and fencing to keep animals from browsing, according to a joint statement released by SPU and the land trust.

To protect the plants, the trust will be using trails to divert hikers away from the open field.

“It’s a big site, so there’s lots of places where people can hike and really enjoy it,” Powell said.

The Bocker parcel was part of the old Camp Casey, decommissioned in the 1950s and now owned and operated by Seattle Pacific University as a historic and educational complex and conference center. The university will use the proceeds from the sale to improve its Camp Casey holdings, the statement said.

SPU President Philip Eaton said the university has been active stewards of the property, working with federal and state authorities to preserve the flower. But, he also said he’s happy to be passing it on to the land trust so that the flower can be protected in perpetuity and the integrity of Ebey’s Landing Reserve can be strengthened.

“The sale is a good solution for the public, citizens on Whidbey, and the university,” he said.

In addition to the rare flower, the land contains two-thirds of a mile of undeveloped shoreline, Powell pointed out. “That’s pretty rare, too,” she said.

Golden paintbrush has been losing habitat to agricultural and residential developments throughout its former territory. It prefers flat grasslands and grass-dominated coastal bluffs. The encroachment of conifers and woody shrubs have also shaded out the grassland habitat.

The state Department of Natural Resources has been managing for golden paintbrush for two decades, according to Commissioner Doug Southerland. “This particular piece of land is key in the long-term protection and recovery of golden paintbrush,” he said.

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