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Despite a tough session, lawmakers find funds for Whispering Firs Bog

Beth Bordner and Tom Dean, standing near the parcel at Whispering Firs Bog that the land trust will now be able to purchase, say they’re thrilled the Legislature agreed to fund the project. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Beth Bordner and Tom Dean, standing near the parcel at Whispering Firs Bog that the land trust will now be able to purchase, say they’re thrilled the Legislature agreed to fund the project.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

The delicate bog laurel is flowering at Whispering Firs Bog, where the peat layer that supports it is thought to be 11,000 years old. The tiny sundew, a carnivorous plant, pokes out from among the moss. And the conifers that ring the bog — mostly cedars and hemlocks — are stunted and contorted, like an over-sized bonsai garden, though in this case shaped solely by nature.

Those who know Whisp-ering Firs Bog on Vashon’s north end say it is unlike anyplace on the Island and extremely rare in the Central Puget Sound region, where such wetlands were unusual to start with and have all but vanished over decades of development.

Now, thanks to an 11th hour move by the Legislature, Whispering Firs will get some critical additional protection. With $400,000 in state funding, the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust will purchase two forested parcels totaling 10 acres to the east of it, preventing development that could have profoundly altered the bog’s chemical balance and ultimately caused it to deteriorate over time.

Tom Dean, who heads the land trust, and Beth Bordner, the land trust’s operations manager, led a reporter there on Friday, pausing to point out the diminutive lavender blossoms on the freshly flowering bog laurel, the waxy-leaved Labrador tea and the flowering white clusters of a wild native crab apple. A pileated woodpecker worked a nearby snag.

“There are vast swaths of bog laurel and Labrador tea in Canada, but locally, where else can you see this?” Dean asked as he took in the scene.

At one point, he bounced up and down — demonstrating the sponginess of the thick layer of peat that supported him. Peat grows at a rate of about one foot in 1,000 years, he said, and core samples taken by Vashon High School science teacher Tom DeVries show the peat at Whispering Firs to be 11 feet deep. “It’s like an old-growth forest,” Dean said.

The nine-acre Whispering Firs Bog Preserve, established 22 years ago, was the first acquisition by the land trust. In fact, Dean said, the purchase-and-sale agreement that Emma Amiad signed on behalf of the organization lists as the purchaser “a buyer yet to be named.”

“She did the purchase and then said, ‘OK, who will create a land trust,’” Dean said.

For years, however, the land trust has been trying to purchase the 10 acres that buffer the bog to the east, a forested track that could have easily become the site of one or two homes. That buffering was critical, Dean and Bordner said, because of the delicate nature of a sphagnum bog, where a very low level of nutrients in the water leads to the kind of stunted growth and plant community one finds at Whispering Firs.

With development come septic systems that, even when working well, add nutrients to the groundwater, lawns that are often fertilized, horses and dogs and the waste they leave behind. With more nutrients, the trees would grow larger, Dean said; they’d shade out the flowering shrubs. And in a matter of time, this rare sphagnum bog would become a much more typical freshwater wetland.

That’s why the land trust called its effort to purchase the additional 10 acres “our failure is not an option project,” Dean said.

Last year, two developments took place that put the land trust’s dream within reach: An agreement by the owner’s estate to sell the property to the land trust and the project’s first-place ranking in its category for funding from the acclaimed and competitive Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program. Without state funding, the land trust — which recently held a three-year capital campaign to raise $300,000 — would have been hard-pressed to find $400,000 to purchase the 10 acre parcel. “There was no plan B,” Dean said.

But in the course of a tough legislative session that ended last week, the wildlife program — a part of the capital budget and thus separate from the operating budget, which funds, among other things, public education — was on the chopping block, as was, in fact, the state’s entire capital budget. A last-minute scramble in the final hours by several lawmakers — including freshman Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien), Dean said — led to the program’s survival.

“I’m still a little stunned,” Dean said.

DeVries, who has led annual treks to the preserve and evaluated its condition annually for some 12 to 15 years, said it’s a remarkably healthy bog — virtually pristine, in part because the land trust allows only occasional guided walks to the site. Like Dean and Bordner, DeVries said its protection felt critical to him.

“For the Central Puget Sound region, it’s one of the very last remnants of that post-Ice Age plant community,” he said. Had the 10-acre buffer been sold and developed, he added, “It could have had drastic consequences.”

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