Veteran island environmentalist looks back at work

Longtime islander Emma Amiad founded the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust and Vashon Audubon.

Emma Amiad, a tireless advocate of environmental and social causes and founder of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust and Vashon Audubon, is leaving the island this summer.

Amiad and her wife Susan White, who have been together almost 32 years, are moving to Sequim, Washington, due to health problems triggered by the smoke from late summer fires.

“Emma is Vashon’s first climate refugee,” says Tom Dean, Executive Director of the Land Trust.

Amiad was determined to find a place in Washington with good birding and clean air. She and Susan chose Sequim because it has two active Audubon Society Chapters, and the winds blowing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca keep the air clear.

“I’m grieving leaving, but we have to go through it. I have to prioritize and I’d rather breathe. I’ve gone through this process many times with my clients, so I just have to follow my own advice.”

Amiad is approaching this unexpected move with the same persistence she’s used over the past 30 years to help Vashon get its environmental act together.

“I started the Land Trust out of anger. I went to a meeting at the library, and these three guys were sitting around saying it couldn’t be done. And I said, ‘Bullshit. The time is right.’”

The founding of the Land Trust in 1990 coincided with its first purchase at Whispering Firs Bog, an extremely rare and fragile sphagnum moss ecosystem only open to the public once a year. In order to secure the property, Amiad made an offer before the non-profit even had a name and donated the $1000 down payment, which, she says, “was a great deal of money for me at the time.”

Dean says, “That kind of risk-taking has been part and parcel of the Land Trust’s success over the years. Since then, every time Emma walked through the door and said, ‘you ought to do this,’ we responded with ‘yes indeed.’ And that has made all the difference.”

Amiad says her greatest accomplishment was wrestling our local parks away from King County control and into the Vashon Park District.

“Our parks were small and underfunded. King County-owned them and they were doing a crappy job of taking care of them. No one could use them. They mowed them and that was about it.”

Amiad, a self-described, “do-gooder, troublemaker,” was able to leverage her position at the time as president of both the Land Trust and Vashon Park District to navigate a treacherous political situation to get the job done.

“It was a tricky, tough little job. I don’t know who else would’ve had the motivation or stupidity to handle it. But the end result was positive.”

Emma Amiad is a keystone species in our environment — one that makes the whole thing function. Without them, ecosystems can change dramatically or collapse. Amiad’s efforts have constructed an edifice of protected land across Vashon. Now that she’s leaving, it’s time for the rest of us to step up and hold it together.

Amiad believes the heirs to her activism aren’t adults but high school students just now finding their voice. “It takes someone who isn’t afraid to stand out there and bang on the tambourine,” she says. “I think the youngest generation finally gets it. When I see people in their teens stepping out and taking leadership roles, it gives me a lot of hope.”

This story first appeared online on March 27, 2019.

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