Sometimes places which get little fanfare add greatly to our island’s quality of life.

For instance, did you know there’s a jewel of a park called Freeland Wetlands Preserve? Located on Newman Road near Scott Road, the preserve, managed by the Whidbey Watershed Stewards, has been designated as a Habitat of Local Importance.

The wetlands host nearly 70 kinds of birds. Resident amphibians include toads, frogs, newts and salamanders.

Freeland Wetlands Preserve on Newman Road, is a jewel of a park in Freeland. Its property is owned and maintained by the Whidbey Watershed Stewards. Photo by Bill Poss

The freshwater wetland contributes to the island’s groundwater aquifer—which adds to central and south Whidbey’s supply of clean drinking water—and reduces surface water runoff. The wetland is part of a series of creeks, bogs and fens running along Newman Road, which include the Earth Sanctuary. The preserve protects 43 acres of forest and wetlands habitat.

“Earth Sanctuary just donated two Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser nesting boxes to the preserve in return for Boy Scout Troop 57’s help cleaning Earth Sanctuary’s nesting boxes,” said Chuck Pettis, founder and owner of the Earth Sanctuary. Jeremy McKnight, the troop leader, serves on the Whidbey Watershed Stewards board. Look for a story on the scout’s work with Earth Sanctuary’s nesting boxes here.

In October 2023, the Watershed Stewards celebrated receipt of nearly $300,000 in Conservation Futures funding to purchase 2.8 acres of two adjacent parcels, providing permanent visitor parking and access to its hiking trails.

There was urgency on the part of the Watershed Stewards to purchase the parcels, as they were previously owned by Birds of a Feather LLC, which considered selling the property. Zoning had been recently changed that would permit building light manufacturing, retail businesses, or office buildings. WWS were concerned such development would adversely impact the aquifer and its wetlands, and eliminate public access to the preserve. WWS applied for funding with Island County’s Conservation Futures program.

Revenue for Conservation Futures is earned from property tax assessments. Island County issues grants to petitioners who seek the funds for conservation of important habitat. There is competition for the funds, and not everyone who asks has their needs met.

On the 2024 tax bill for instance, a home valued at $600,000 will be paying about $40 toward the Conservation Futures fund.

Meanwhile, Whidbey Watershed Stewards has owned and maintained 43 acres of the preserve with a volunteer staff since 2014. But the 2.8 acre-parcel remained in the ownership of Birds of a Feather until 2023. The Rotary Club of South Whidbey Island even built a parking lot, kiosk and picnic table on the property under the Birds of a Feather ownership.

After the parking/picnic area was rezoned by Island County, the parcel was offered to WWS, and valued at $295,512 in 2023. The community rallied with letters of support requesting that Conservation Futures funding be used to secure the land.

Candace Jordan, a long-time board member of the Whidbey Watershed Stewards, said it was a long process—jumping through all the hoops to apply for the grant. Along with Bob Gentz, WWS treasurer, and Rick Baker, former WWS executive director, the team worked to secure the Conservation Futures funding.

Candace Jordan and future watershed stewards from a 2023 photo on WWS’ Facebook page

“We received letters of support from legislators, Sound Water Stewards, and lots of public support, Candace said. “Now, we own the wetlands and own the 2.8 acres—the whole shebang.”

Among those cheering the Stewards’ receipt of the grant were local birders and ecologists. “I would love to give a nod to them, as well as the Island County Board of Commissioners and Natural Resources staff,” Candace added.

“This is probably the most critical wetland habitat for amphibians in Island County,” wrote Steve Ellis in a letter endorsing the grant. Steve served many years on the Conservation Futures Funding Technical Advisory Group. “I endorse this grant without any hesitation because WWS would be the best stewards of this valuable resource.”

Nowadays, volunteers are working to improve trails, and remove invasive plants such as Scotch Broom, Canada Thistle, blackberries and ivy.

The wetlands are within walking distance to suburban Freeland.

“Can you just imagine more connected walking trails throughout Freeland?” Candace asked. “I hope this might spark enthusiasm for that effort, too!”

Island Transit bus stops are nearby, so the public can walk to the preserve, and later, enjoy a coffee and teriyaki at nearby Petosa Corner, before catching the return bus.

“You have upland forest. It’s quiet. You hear birds,” Candace added. “You’re walking along, and have a sense of stillness. One day I looked up and saw an owl looking down at me.”

She recalled a recent story told to her by veterinarian David Parent, who has documented many of the birds and amphibians at the preserve.

While frequently driving Newman Road, Dr. Parent rescues salamanders and newts he sees crossing the asphalt.

“I saw a rough-skinned newt crossing the road, stopped the car, put the flashers on, and was ready to get out, when a Barred owl swooped down and picked the newt up, flew up to a wire and started eating it,” Dave said. “I worried that the newt would be toxic to the bird.”

According to a Wikipedia article, newts secret a toxin that could be fatal when ingested. Dr. Parent, reached out to specialists, and learned that Barred owls can eat newts without adverse effects from the toxin. He is concerned about the decimation of the newt and salamander population. For years he drove along Newman Road, while heading to his practice at the Useless Bay Animal Clinic, taking a moment to move the amphibians off the road.

“That population from the 90s has plummeted,” Dave said. “While driving along the road, I picked up and moved six or eight this year. In previous years, it would be at least 20 I’d move to the other side of the road.”

Hopefully, with the preservation of the Freeland Wetlands Preserve, the amphibian population can recover. Dr. Parent noted, however, that the population explosion of non-native Barred owls has added to the newt and salamander’s decline.

A pair of trail markers at the beginning of a 2-mile loop trail through wetlands and forest at the Freeland Wetlands Preserve, owned and managed by the Whidbey Watershed Stewards. Photo by Kate Poss

The Whidbey Watershed Stewards were beneficiaries of Conservation Futures funds nearly 30 years ago, and spearheaded purchase of five acres on Maxwelton Creek for the South Whidbey School District. WWS maintains and improves the property for the school district, while volunteers teach school children the salmon life cycle at the property’s Outdoor Classroom.

Carved hand shows release of baby salmon into the Sound
Wood sculptor Pat McVay created this homage to salmon, carved from one tree. A hand releasing juvenile salmon into Maxwelton Creek is part of wood sculpture at the Outdoor Classroom in Clinton. Photo by David Welton

The Whidbey Watershed Stewards welcome volunteers to help further their mission in education, and wetlands restoration and protection. Besides working with the Outdoor Classroom and promoting salmon recovery, volunteers also maintain and restore habitat at the Frank D. Robinson Beach Park–off of Mutiny Bay Road in Freeland, Old Clinton Creek, lower Maxwelton Valley, and work with Island County to repair and clear collapsed and overgrown culverts to facilitate salmon passage.

In particular, WWS are hosting an upcoming spring training program April 11 or 15 from 9 AM to 2 PM at the Rene Neff Maxwelton Outdoor Classroom. Program materials and lunch will be provided.

Laina Stonefelt,  WWS Environmental Education Coordinator, emailed this announcement:

“Whidbey Watershed Stewards are excited to begin our Spring Field Trips at the Rene Neff Maxwelton Outdoor Classroom! This season we will introduce students to our Habitats and Creatures Curriculum, featuring one brand-new lesson to the program. We look forward to building upon our success last spring, in which we served 533 students on 19 field trips. Our focus this year is continuing to build a quality volunteer program. We are featuring 8 lessons this season, 4 for our younger elementary students and 4 for our older elementary students. As a volunteer you can lead a lesson, co-teach a lesson, or be a roving assistant to any of the lessons by providing support and set up that is needed. As a volunteer you can sign up for a full day or a half day, either morning or afternoon.”

RSVP Laina Stonefelt at: laina.whidbeywatersheds@gmail.com

 

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