Vashon Land Trust, Singer Farm work together to fence off land, preserve water quality

George Singer’s family has been raising cattle on the Singer Farm for more than 50 years.  - Leslie Brown/staff photo
George Singer’s family has been raising cattle on the Singer Farm for more than 50 years.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

To walk the land with George Singer is to find that nearly everything on his undulating expanse of pasture and forest holds a story.

Singer helped to build the low cement bridge over Judd Creek when he was a boy, he noted as he sauntered across it. And over there, he said with a nod, is the metal-clad barn his father erected in 1947, much to the dismay of his mother, who wanted the house built first. “My dad told her, ‘Every farmer builds his barn first,’” he recalled.

Even the name of the road that bisects this verdant landscape comes with a story. The high school kids called it Singer’s Road long before it had a name, and when the county decided it was time to give it a moniker, Singer Road was made official — this time, to his father’s dismay. He wanted it to be a numbered road, George Singer said, “because if it’s a numbered road, you can find it. My dad was an engineer.”

Now Singer Farm holds yet another story, one George Singer’s father likely could never have imagined.

The Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, with funding from King County, is slowly but surely fencing off that portion of the Singer Farm that Judd Creek bisects to protect the stream’s fragile ecosystem from cattle and horses. Coho salmon lay their eggs here. Indeed, land trust staff have found dozens of redds, gravel depressions filled with salmon eggs, along the hundreds of feet of stream that cross the Singer Farm — the biggest concentration they’ve found on the Island, says Tom Dean, director of the land trust.

Keeping cattle and horses out of the stream is critical to the health of Quartermaster Harbor as well, where high levels of nitrogen — stemming in part from animal waste — is harming the bay’s water quality.

George Singer, a lanky, plain-spoken man, is matter of fact about his decision to let the land trust fence off the stream — a project that is costing him about eight of his 60 acres.

“I can’t grow anything in here,” he said, picking his way across a dozen seeps and springs that wend their way to Judd Creek. “It doesn’t sustain any cattle. ... We’re not so desperate to need it.”

Dean, for his part, said the organization is thrilled to be doing this work — a project the land trust identified more than a decade ago as critical to Judd Creek’s health.

“It’s not a big deal for him to lose that land. But every cow we can get out of the creek is a benefit,” he said.

Singer Farm sits in the swale of what’s called Paradise Valley — and to come across it for the first time is to feel as though one’s gone back in time. Towering firs give way to an open sweep of land crisscrossed by fences and dotted with horses and cows. The brick house that George, his brothers and his father completed in 1957 sits on the side of the hill, where it boasts a commanding view of Mount Rainier. Cattle guards, very likely the only ones left on the Island, cross the base of the driveway. Two barns adorn the landscape.

At one time, Karl and Annetta Singer, George Singer’s parents, owned 96 acres in this valley. George, his three brothers and one sister were raised on this farm. The family’s two-acre vegetable garden and beef and milk cows fed the family. They always had fresh cottage cheese, butter and milk, Singer recalled.

Here, too, the land trust is making its mark.

Three years ago, the organization bought a portion of the Singer Farm — 15 acres that all five of the siblings owned along the eastern side of the road. Two years ago, the land trust bought another five acres that abuts the Singer Farm — a grassy expanse informally known as Doretha Park, once a private, tucked-away park used by kids, families, even K2 on occasion. After the owner Doretha Miller died in 1992, it became a clandestine marijuana farm, according to the land trust.

The land trust has gotten two grants from the county totaling $53,000 to fence off Judd Creek and undertake other restoration work on its 20 acres of new property, including reforestation of Doretha Park. Three years ago, the land trust began the first phase, fencing off three acres of Singer’s property. This July, it plans an even more ambitious fencing project, erecting fences that will set aside five soggy acres on the upper west end of Singer’s property.

The five-acre parcel is particularly striking — a mix of towering Western red cedars and Douglas firs with an understory of deer fern and other native plants, “a kind of forest you don’t see much on the Island,” said Abel Eckhardt, the land trust’s steward.

The purchases the land trust has made and the fencing and restoration projects are significant steps in the organization’s ongoing efforts to protect and restore Judd Creek, the Island’s largest watershed. “Our focus has been Judd Creek for the last few years,” Eckhardt said.

Both the land trust and George Singer are frustrated, however, about one aspect of the project. Currently, Singer leases the 15-acre parcel the land trust purchased from his family, using the land to graze his herd of 13 cattle as well as horses that other people board on his property.

But because of the way the land trust financed the deal — it sold a conservation easement to King County to cover its acquisition costs — the organization now has to comply with the terms of that easement, which means the cattle and horses will have to leave this November.

Dean thinks it’s a mistake. Without horses and cattle on the rolling pastureland, the land trust will have to mow the property; it’ll be years before the land trust has the funds to get rid of the pasture altogether and reforest it, he said. Horses and cattle, as long as they’re not in the stream, have less of an environmental impact than mowing, Dean said.

“I negotiated very hard to continue grazing. ... But the county was intractable,” Dean said.

Singer will move his herds in November, but added, “I’m not happy with that. To have the land just sit here and go to pot — it’s not acceptable.”

But Greg Rabourn, the county’s Vashon basin steward, said there was little the county could do — since the county purchased the easement from the land trust based on the project’s ecological merits, not as a farmland preservation project.

Finding the funds and piecing the project together was complex, he added; the land trust and county spent years bringing it to fruition.

“The county cares deeply about the protection of Paradise Valley and the improvement of this habitat,” he said. “Given these challenging funding situations, it’s really neat that we were able to do this.”

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