Countybuys the last slice of the heronry buffer pie

Published on Thu, Sep 1, 2005 by ack Kintner

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County buys the last slice of the heronry buffer pie

By Jack Kintner

An unusual coalition of local businesses, a state agency and the Whatcom Land Trust helped Whatcom County buy three, five-acre parcels near Birch Bay State Park this week. In doing so, they permanently took the last pieces of buildable property near a large Great Blue Heron nesting area out of reach of developers, completing the last link in a conservation buffer designed to protect one of the largest known heronries on the west coast.

Wildlife biologist Ann Eissinger of Nahkeeta Northwest Wildlife Services in Bow has studied the colony for many years and has long advocated increased protection for the nesting sites near Birch Bay.

“We had good luck persuading large landowners to help us preserve these major nesting areas,” she said, “such as the Trillium Corporation, who purchased land around the Point Roberts nesting site.”

In 1996, Eissinger persuaded the Arco refinery, now known as BP Cherry Point, to donate a conservation easement to the Whatcom Land Trust on 77 acres of their land adjacent to Birch Bay State Park. Three years later, BP added easements on another 103 acres for a total of 180 acres. The easements were estimated at the time to be worth $2 million. When combined with the 184-acre Birch Bay State Park, the easements yielded a total of 364 acres permanently committed to more or less natural wildlife habitat, given that the park includes campsites and roads. The core nesting area occupies about two acres, which means that the surrounding area will provide room for expansion as well as protection.

The exception was an old, 20-acre farm east of the state park that sits between BP’s two parcels in a strip roughly 500 feet wide and half a mile long. If developed it would put houses within a few feet of the nesting site.

“When the heirs of the original owners put these 15 acres on the market some months ago,” said realtor Jeri Smith of Windermere’s Bellingham office, “I immediately sent the information to the land trust. I knew it was the last piece that could be developed close to the herons, and even though it’s zoned (R5A) so that each parcel would have only one house, the nesting site needs to be protected from any development that close.” Smith knows the area well, having grown up in Birch Bay at a resort her parents owned and ran, Holiday Shore, when she was known as Jeralyn. When asked how long ago that was, she would only say that “it was when our Birch Bay phone numbers were just two digits. Ours was 38!”

Eissinger and Rand Jack, who serves on the board for the land trust, praised Smith for her work in bringing several parties together that has culminated in this week’s purchase. “She was a very important part of this process from beginning to end,” Eissinger said.

Both Jack and Smith emphasized the wide variety of people and agencies who cooperated to make the purchase happen. The $299,000 selling price was raised by contributions from the owners of the Cherry Point refinery ($100,000), and from the county’s Conservation Futures Fund ($150,000). Smaller amounts came from David Evans and Associates, who donated $1,650, or half the cost of a wetlands study, from the land trust, who gave $900 toward the cost of an appraisal, and from Smith herself, who donated her realtor’s commissions back to the land trust.

“I really believe in the land trust philosophy of conservation by purchase or easement,” said Smith, who still donates a portion of her commissions on other unrelated sales to the group. “I consider myself to be a green realtor, and am glad to help the trust protect what they call Whatcom County Special Places.”

Despite the support from major donors and individuals alike, “We were still short,” said Jack, adding that he then contacted Richard Grout of the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Bellingham office. “He told me he had $51,000 left in a Coastal Protection Fund that his department controlled, and then asked me how much I needed. I told him that I’d need $49,000 of it, and it was ready within days,” Jack said.

Smith said that the negotiation with the heirs was complex, once the money had been raised, but that in the end “they agreed to sell to the land trust because it came down to protecting and preserving something they loved.”

The sale became official when it was recorded on Tuesday morning, August 30. The colony, which came to the area decades ago when land south of Terrell Creek was logged, numbers in excess of 300 nesting pairs of birds in what Eissinger says is properly known as a heronry. “Even though you hear the term a lot, it’s not a ‘rookery,’ which is a term for old world corvids (crows),” she said, “it’s a heronry.” It’s the third largest nesting colony in the Puget Sound basin for the resident subspecies, Ardea herodias fannini, of a bird that’s widely distributed in North and South America.

Part of the protection plan for the nesting site involves being deliberately vague about the exact location of the large colony in what is now a protected area of almost 380 acres.

“We’d just as soon not be that specific,” said Jack, “since we’re still working out access issues. It’s not a good idea to have people tramping into the area, but on the other hand, fences are expensive and block other kinds of wildlife.”

Smith, who was ebullient when the sale closed, said “All those of you who are thrilled with all the herons out on the bay, remember that without protecting the nesting area, there won’t be any birds out on the mudflats. A lot of people came together to make all this happen, to do a good thing for the birds and for our quality of life.”