At the end of the year, Tom Dean, the executive director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust for 17 years, will leave his job and step into a new role as Conservation Director.
His work will concentrate on land acquisition, securing financing, forming partnerships and special projects such as the construction of trail routes from one reserve to another.
Late last month, Dean wrote in a letter to Land Trust members that the move is part of a vision to create a stronger organization for the uncertain future by investing more time and funding to protect the green spaces of Vashon.
“I am excited to have the chance to fully focus my efforts on the foundational work of the Land Trust,” he wrote, calling for continued support for work that started decades ago with the purchase of one parcel of land at Whispering Firs Bog and has since protected 2,200 acres on the island.
In an interview with The Beachcomber, Dean said that the Land Trust has a lot to offer, such as bringing the historic Matsuda Farm back into agricultural production, which Dean said was still a fledgling project that the organization plans to improve and undertake next year. Matsuda is increasing production slated for the Vashon Maury Island Food Bank and Vashon Fresh program, a role that since the pandemic has become more important as many islanders struggle to meet their basic needs.
“It certainly was a big deal as COVID hit and a lot more families were really in need of food this year. That’s not going to change much going into next year, unfortunately,” he said.
The pandemic has delayed the other ambitions of the Land Trust this year, such as building new trails at Judd Creek, which Dean said would require a big push next year to complete.
Dean said the hunt for a new executive director of the Land Trust would begin soon.
“We’re hoping to find somebody who can kind of take us to the next level in terms of structure and organization,” he said.
Dean recalled a number of key points of his time as Executive Director, most recently the development of Frog Holler Forest — so-called for the local neighborhood and tree frogs in the area — on the south end of the island. In only the last three years, King County has closed on 150 acres of land, paying $1.35 million for the two most recent acquisitions, closing down to the target of increasing the forest to 200 acres or more.
“That’s been our most recent sort of big success. And that was really starting from scratch, no protected land in that area before we started,” Dean said.
One of the Land Trust’s most important ventures, Dean said, was preserving the Island Center Forest. Boasting one of Vashon’s most commonly used trail networks, from hikers and horseback riders to mountain bikers, the reserve includes the headwaters of Judd Creek and is an important recharge area for the island’s drinking water aquifer. The Land Trust raised $4.7 million to protect it all, one of the biggest capital projects ever initiated on the island for its time.
“That, I think, because of its size, and location in the center of the island, really galvanized the community. You know, it really demonstrated what could be accomplished. And so as I look back on my tenure, I go back to that; that was really a point at which we really went to the next level. And I’d like to do that again.”
Dean said that he is currently working with King County on a number of major acquisitions, adding that the Land Trust has more potential for restoration than it can currently support. He also said it was his intention to find and work with other collaborators to restore funding to King County’s eroded Conservation Futures tax levy, a property tax that supports the acquisition of open space, to take advantage of further conservation opportunities on Vashon as they arise.
Dean said that the outpouring of support for the work of the Land Trust by islanders is one of his favorite parts of the work.
“We have a strong conservation ethic in this community. And it’s really fun to use it, the excitement of our supporters, when we pull off a big deal, or even just building a trail, there’s a lot of enthusiasm,” he said. “That’s really the fun part, is just seeing the community so excited about what we’re doing.” He added that he will continue to be closely involved with donors on project updates and programming.
Jon Thomas, President of the Board of Directors of the Land Trust, lauded Dean as a committed preservationist who has successfully leveraged his various county and state contacts to protect numerous environmentally vulnerable areas of the island throughout his career.
“Tom is a remarkable person, in the sense that his work, I mean, for 17 years, he has been involved in every single land acquisition we have made here on the island. And in many respects, almost every acquisition King County has made on the island,” Thomas said, noting how Dean was able to connect multiple waterfront parcels together and establish protected stretches of critical habitats, such as on the island’s south end.
Thomas said the board was thrilled about Dean’s new role and the prospects for conservation on the island in the years ahead.
“He is a very creative thinker about how something can get done. And he’s been invaluable to the Land Trust and the community,” he said.