In 1930, when my grandfather was just 19, he drove with his mother from Seattle to Mt. Vernon, Washington, and stood on the Skagit County courthouse steps, anxiously watching as a handful of land auction buyers gathered around him. Without much money in his pocket, he knew that if anyone else in the crowd intended to bid on the parcel that he’d come for, he would walk away with a broken heart.
It was his luck—and our family’s great blessing—that no one else had come that spring morning to purchase land on Cypress Island – part of the San Juan island archipelago in Washington’s Puget Sound, an island that my grandfather had fallen in love with as a kid. That day nearly 80 years ago, he put a 50 dollar cash down-payment on nearly 100 acres on the north end of Cypress, the place that would anchor our family and shape all of our lives.
A few days ago, I stood with my grandfather—now 97—in Mt.Vernon, not more than two blocks from those same courthouse steps, and he, my brother, my dad and I signed and sealed a conservation easement—another down payment, if you will, that continues our family’s stewardship of that land on into the future. A conservation easement is voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust—usually a non-profit organization—to permanently limit certain uses (usually subdivision and development) in order to protect the property’s natural characteristics in perpetuity. The easement stays with the land even if ownership changes. Perpetuity is a big word, but this contract is meant to last. Our signatures that day made concrete our conviction that the place is not something to possess, rather a place that we have a responsibility to take care of and a legacy we want to leave intact.
Cypress is indeed a magical spot. The Northern Straits Salish have inhabited this area for more than 11,000 years. A few hardscrabble homesteaders scratched out orchards and gardens here and there on the island in the 1890s—but didn’t last long. There are a few private cabins on the island today. But Cypress has come through the years largely untouched. It is the biggest undeveloped island in the San Juans—without ferry access, roads, or much human impact. Parts of the island have been logged over the years, but today the timber on the majority of the island is magnificent and healthy 100-year-old second-growth.
People who know the island, either by exploring its rocky beaches, hiking to panoramic views from Eagle Rock—a jutting rock cliff on the north end—or circumnavigating it in a kayak, develop a fierce loyalty to it. My family, along with a handful of other landowners and concerned neighbors, spent several decades working to protect the island’s natural integrity. Starting in the 1960s, private developers bought up huge portions of the island and began proposing sub-divisions and extensive development. During my childhood, plans were lined up for a 5-star resort that would take up three quarters of the island, including a golf course, air strip, and marina. Almost overnight, the island would have been transformed from a pristine gem to the most densely populated island in the San Juans.
Citizen action and visionary state leadership saved Cypress from that fate. In 1975, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources purchased its first parcel on Cypress. In the late 1980s, the mandate of the DNR had changed slightly; the state could now hold land considered especially unique or fragile without logging it. The last of its kind, Cypress qualified as one of the first Natural Resources Conservation Areas and DNR began a concerted effort to protect it. By 1996, on the 5,500 acre island, DNR had acquired 4,700 acres. An Aquatic Reserve surrounding the island has been added to state holdings as well. These special places are managed as a “public trust” by DNR for the benefit of current and future citizens of Washington State. Our family’s easement is meant to complement the state’s conservation management plan for the island.
The easement process led to some pretty unusual dinner-table conversations for our family over the last year. There was no question about our intentions: To preserve the place as it is today, to continue our stewardship beyond our lifetimes. But thinking through the details, forced us to imagine the world 10, 50, 100 years from now—and beyond. We wound up working through some tough questions—and facing some tough realities—about our hopes and fears for our family, our region, and for humankind.
The fact is these conversations forced me, perhaps for the first time, to acknowledge the reality of climate impacts on my own life and the places I love. It’s ironic, I know. I have my nose in climate change science and policy on a daily basis. But it took this process to make it real, personal, concrete. My dad would trace his finger on the map along a new shoreline, as we imagined how the land-mass itself might change if sea levels rose. Walking through tall stands of fir and lush undergrowth, we imagined how the island’s ecosystems could be altered or certain species diminished with higher temperatures, drought, or ice. We imagined worse-case scenarios about economic chaos in the region; would we want to take refuge here? Would our grandkids? Would others? Through these conversations, I’ve become even more invested in promoting smart climate solutions with my work at Sightline.
As it turned out we were the first easement donors to the Skagit Land Trust to ask that our contract take into account some of the uncertainties of climate disruption. It wasn’t anything much—just some allowances in case water levels change the acreage considerably or the little cabin my grandparents built as newlyweds from beach-combed lumber is someday washed away. But imagining the future of a specific and beloved place reinforced for me the stake we all have in energy policies being devised right now – in Portland, Oregon, or Bali or Washington, D.C., Moscow, and Beijing.
Our family’s conservation easement is small in the face of all this. But every family would benefit from conversations like the ones we’ve had drafting it, looking seriously a decade or two—or ten—into the future and imagining the world we’d like to leave behind. And we all have a responsibility to help protect our grandfather’s old home place—or whatever place our souls call home.
**Thanks to my dad, Nick Fahey, for help with this post and for leading the Friends of Cypress Island for all those years. Thanks to Bob Rose and the Skagit Land Trust for their dedication to conservation. And thanks to my grandfather, George E. Fahey, for being as visionary at 19 as he is wise at 97.