Whatcom Land Trust: 35 Years of Stewardship

If you’ve ever taken a hike, bike or paddle in gorgeous Whatcom County, WA, it’s likely that you’ve stood on land that’s been permanently protected by the Whatcom Land Trust (WLT).

Since 1984, this humble nonprofit has tirelessly pursued its mission to preserve and protect wildlife habitat and scenic, agricultural and open space lands in Whatcom County for future generations. Although the process may be quite complex—bringing disparate groups to the table to achieve shared goals despite sometimes conflicting aims—their approach is simple. They secure interest in land and promote sustainable stewardship in the community.

Their hard work in land acquisition, education and stewardship has successfully preserved more than 24,000 acres in Whatcom County over the last 35 years. Through more than 180 conservation transactions—from simple donations of conservation easements to complex public-private partnerships—they’re protecting:

·       The Lake Whatcom Watershed that provides drinking water to more than 95,000 residents

·       More than 32 miles of coastal marine and freshwater shorelines

·       Forests, trails and wildlife habitat of Chuckanut Mountain

·       Water quality, salmon and wildlife habitat in the North, Middle and South Forks of the Nooksack River

·       More than 1,100 acres of agricultural, forestry and other working lands on farms (and their farmers).

The Trust has made it possible for the Whatcom County community to balance the economy, conservation and recreation, coexisting peacefully and supporting each other long-term.

Maple Creek Reach. Photo by Alan Fritzberg

Education & Stewardship

“Caring for the land and educating the community on its deeper value—beyond simple economics—has also been a major focus of the Trust’s efforts over its 35-year history,” explains WLT Executive Director Rich Bowers.

With deep roots in the community, the Trust’s staff, Board of Directors and volunteers have partnered with government agencies, tribes, area businesses, conservation organizations and schools to educate, improve habitat and environmental health and foster a stewardship culture in the broader community.

A quintessential example is the 5.5-acre Harrison Property that was donated to the Trust in 2001 near Kendall Elementary School. By partnering with Kendall Elementary, North Cascades Audubon, Whatcom Conservation District and Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, volunteer work parties and area Business Partners in Conservation like Superfeet have removed invasive species and planted more than 3,500 native plants on the property. These efforts will provide stream buffers that cool the water for salmon fry and prevent erosion long-term.

A future boardwalk will support education and restoration activities for students and the public while minimizing the impact in Kendall Creek wetland habitat along the Nooksack River. 

Cooperatively Balancing Parks, Recreation and Wildlife Habitat

Photo by Alan Fritzberg


Most people don’t realize that more than 14 Whatcom County Parks have been formed with the Trust’s involvement, representing more than 13,800 acres.

“The Trust works hard to find ways to make properties accessible to the public for recreation while also protecting and improving the habitats within them,” explains Bowers. “Local partnerships have helped create and maintain trail systems for recreation opportunities like walking, hiking, biking, birding, beach exploration, photography and a lot more.” Education has also been intertwined through information displays, signage and community events.

The partnerships between Whatcom County Parks, the Trust and the community have resulted in some of the area’s most popular and accessible dog- and family-friendly parks. Here are just a few examples that you can check out first-hand.

Teddy Bear Cove

More than 9 acres and 1,430 feet of shoreline along Chuckanut Bay are protected in Chuckanut Mountain Park. A switchback trail through second-growth forest leads to incredible shoreline views of Chuckanut Bay and Clark’s Point. The bright white south-facing beach is the result of centuries of crushed clam shells that collect there. Families see marine life in tide pools at low tide and enjoy the views from the bluff, standing among a forest of madrone and Garry oak.

In the summer months at night, the cove is a perfect place to witness the wonder of bioluminescence, a phenomenon where movement of the water causes the organisms that live in it to glow.

Stimpson Family Nature Reserve

Owlet, Stimpson Family Nature Reserve. Photo by Alan Fritzberg

Near Sudden Valley, in Stimpson Family Nature Reserve, you’ll find four miles of trails through mature second-growth forest surrounding lakes and shelter streams. Identify waterfowl or mushrooms or just get out and be alone with nature. “As the Reserve interpretive sign mentions, this site is an excellent example of the Trust’s work, ‘Conservation for the community, by the community…,’” notes Bowers, “summarizing our ongoing and special partnership with Whatcom County Parks and Recreation.”

Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve

With 54 acres of mature forest, forested wetlands, and more than two miles of marine shoreline, this is an excellent stop for families and beach combers. Bald eagle, woodpeckers, and nesting birds, as well as many native mammals are spotted there. Just off shore are loons, cormorants, gulls, grebes, porpoises, sea lions and kelp forests.

Point Whitehorn. Photo by Alan Fritzberg

 Lake Whatcom Park: Hertz and Chanterelle Trails

Lake Whatcom from the Chanterelle Trail. Photo by John D’Onofrio

Access this lovely park northeast of Lake Whatcom off Northshore Road with eight miles of hiking trails— and many more planned for the years ahead.

With only 100 feet of elevation gain along the Hertz Trail, as runners and mountain bikers pass ‘on your left,’ you’ll enjoy streams, glimmering lake views, a cascading waterfall and gigantic old-growth trees. Interpretive kiosks share the fascinating area history.

Whatcom County’s newest, Chanterelle Trail, is 2.4 miles with 1,000 feet of elevation gain on long switchbacks. The expansive views make it worth the effort, ending with a breath-taking vista of Lake Whatcom, foothills, Bellingham Bay and the San Juan Islands.

Lookout Mountain Forest Preserve

Spanning almost 4,430 forested acres on the west side of Lake Whatcom, the Preserve is just south of Lake Louise Road and Sudden Valley. The Whatcom Transit Authority 512 bus stops conveniently at the trailhead. You can wander along streams, wetlands, sandstone cliffs and a variety of forest types on more than eight miles of looping trails. You can enjoy a quiet moment beside a picturesque waterfall and savor the view of snow-capped Mount Baker.

This site is also a great example of the recreation and habitat connectivity that the WLT works toward. Existing ‘Backside’ and ‘Bottoms Up’ trails continue off-site connecting with the recently protected Galbraith Mountain Trail System. New trails will eventually connect to Squires Lake Park to the south and the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail heading south to Alger.

More Ahead: Galbraith Mountain, Skookum Creek Corridor & Governor’s Point

The Trust and its partners have had several big successes in the past year or so, including protecting the popular mountain biking destination, Galbraith Mountain, from future development in perpetuity. The City of Bellingham and The Trust purchased an easement from Galbraith Tree Farm LLC last summer protecting 2,182 acres, including use of 65 miles of already developed nationally-recognized mountain bike trails. Also used for family outings, running, hiking, and walking, the easement adjoins more than 4,250 acres of public land managed by Whatcom County.

Galbraith Mountain. Photo by John D’Onofrio

Another big win for the community includes Governor’s Point. After seeking opportunities there for more than 30 years, a June 2018 agreement was forged between the City of Bellingham, the Trust and a Canadian business owner with help from Trust Board Member and Bellingham Litigation Attorney Rand Jack. In exchange for developing 16 new homes on the Point, the owner will donate 80 acres of mature coastal forest to the WLT for creation of a nature reserve with public trail access. The Trust expects to receive title to this property this fall. A planned two-plus-mile public loop trail will provide access to two primary beaches that can eventually be accessed by kayaks and canoes.

In February 2019, the Trust’s largest privately-supported community campaign enabled the purchase of the Skookum Creek Conservation Corridor from Weyerhaeuser. Close to 1,400 acres of riparian forest and upland in the South Fork Nooksack basin will be managed to improve recreation opportunities, salmon habitat, watershed health and landscape connectivity.

The corridor is located in the Cascades to Chuckanuts (C2C) Natural Area—350,000 acres of the last relatively undeveloped corridor linking the shores of Puget Sound with the Cascades and Columbia Basin. This acquisition increases permanent land protections in the C2C region to more than 19,000 acres.

 Protecting Precious Farmland

Photo by John D’Onofrio


Also among the Trust’s top priorities is the management of agricultural easements on 22 farms, covering more than 1,100 acres in the Whatcom Core Agricultural Zone. The Whatcom County Agricultural Purchase of Development Rights (Ag PDR) program protects soils and water resources to maximize food production.

Alluvial Farms, a 44-acre pastured pork farm in Everson, is just one excellent example of how multiple agencies and organizations worked together in creative ways to support farmers and protect farmland. The WLT partnered with the USDA Farm Service Agency and Washington Conservation District  to help owners Katie Pencke and Matthew McDermott become farm owners.

With a three-year low interest conservation loan from the Trust, Alluvial Farms will have options to either pay back the loan or “record a conservation easement on the 10-acre riparian habitat area along Dale Creek (a salmon-bearing stream) on the northern border of the property,” explains WLT Conservation Director Gabe Epperson. “This is part of our Farming for Food & Wildlife program that seeks to balance farmland protection and habitat protection, which we believe are compatible and not mutually exclusive,” Epperson adds.

The Trust partners to work incrementally toward Whatcom County’s goal of protecting at least 100,000 acres to sustain a viable agricultural sector long-term.

 Get Involved

Volunteer Kim Clarkin. Photo by Alan Fritzberg

Follow the Trust on Facebook and Instagram and subscribe to their monthly e-newsletter via their website.

Volunteers are always welcome at multiple work parties throughout the year and there are opportunities for local businesses to become a Business Partner in Conservation. Everyone is encouraged to make a donation, whether it’s monthly, annually or via estate planning.

The next time you walk, run, hike, bike or paddle in marvelous Whatcom County, send a big thank you into the universe for this land we love and to Whatcom Land Trust and its strong partnerships that have protected it for your use, and for generations of people and wildlife to come.

 History of the Whatcom Land Trust

Canyon Creek. Photo by Alan Fritzberg


In March 1983, nearly 50 people gathered in the basement of the Dutch Mothers Restaurant in downtown Lynden, Washington, an agricultural community in the heart of Whatcom County. Together, they learned about ways a land trust might preserve Whatcom County’s agricultural heritage. Having obtained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, the first “official” board meeting of the Whatcom Land Trust was held in November 1984.

Over their 35-year history, the Trust has completed over 180 transactions, divided about evenly between conservation easements and fee acquisitions. Combined, they have facilitated protection of 10,154 acres, with 90 Trust-owned properties totaling 4,955 acres, and 94 conservation easements with willing and preservation-minded property owners for another 8,980 acres. In addition, 13,800+ acres have been protected by the Trust, currently managed by Whatcom County Parks and Recreation.

Today, the Trust continues to work for protection of working lands including agriculture and forested properties, and seeks to protect places special to Whatcom County for habitat, recreation, connectivity, clean water, parklands and shore lands, to date totaling 24,088 acres.

Each effort is undertaken in partnership with others in the Whatcom community, including  agencies, tribes, schools, businesses, landowners and others who want to protect the nature of the county. The Land Trust’s long-range promise to the Whatcom County community is that in 50 to 100 years the wild and special places here will still exist, and the quality of life they represent will remain forever.

With several additional projects planned for the near future, their work—based in community partnerships—truly represents conservation for the community, by the community.

Lorraine Wilde is owner of the public relations company, Wilde World Communications and has lived in Whatcom County for more than 25 years. She has published more than 300 articles and blogs nationally and internationally, helping small businesses and organizations spread positive messages. She cares deeply about this place she calls home.

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