Leaders of local nonprofits focused on land conservation and environmental education revisited this week how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their work and underscored the importance of their missions to protect and share wildlands.
Soon-to-retire North Cascades Institute Executive Director Saul Weisberg was the featured speaker at the Skagit Land Trust’s annual meeting, held Wednesday over Zoom.
The two organization’s missions overlap in many ways, but Weisberg said they share most deeply an emphasis on connection to place. They also share the desire “to make sure this special part of the world is kept healthy and intact for future generations,” he said.
Amidst the pandemic in 2020, the nonprofits came together to do just that in one corner of the Skagit River watershed.
The North Cascades Institute put a 9-acre property where Diobsud Creek meets the Skagit River into a conservation easement held by the Skagit Land Trust. That means the land, along 1,150 feet of creek and river shoreline, will remain undeveloped forever.
Weisberg said the North Cascades Institute purchased the property near Marblemount in 2014 to provide housing for staff of the Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake. While the now-expanded house on the property continues serving that purpose, Weisberg said he felt compelled to ensure permanent protection of the surrounding land before leaving the institute, which he founded in 1986 after becoming captivated by the North Cascades-Skagit River region.
The allure? “Green, misty mountains and mornings like we’re having now, with the turning of the seasons and fog lifting off the river,” Weisberg said.
The acreage recently placed in a conservation easement is bordered by often fog-shrouded waters and includes views of the nearby mountains. It brings the network of lands the Skagit Land Trust now protects in the Diobsud Creek watershed to about 100 acres.
“We’ve been working since 2002 to knit together the Diobsud Creek watershed and that, especially with additions recently, has been pretty successful,” land trust Executive Director Molly Doran said.
Skagit Land Trust Trust Conservation Director Michael Kirshenbaum said the Diobsud Creek watershed is important for wildlife including salmon, wintering bald eagles and the return of wolves to Western Washington.
The expansion of conserved land in that watershed is just one of several achievements the land trust managed to fulfill during the past year.
“We were able to work on 28 projects in the Skagit and return them to nature,” Doran said, listing off conservation easements, land purchases and property donations secured across Skagit County in 2020. “It was a good year even though it was a difficult year.”
The projects ranged from locations like the North Cascades Institute conservation easement in the upper Skagit River watershed to projects in the lower Samish River, along marine shorelines and on Guemes Island.
Doran said while land trust properties are lesser-known than state and national public lands, she’s glad the organization could provide space where people can escape cities and their homes in a year of isolation like 2020.
“During the pandemic, our trails and properties have been really popular. People have wanted to get out and connect with the land,” she said.