Recent land purchases nearly double Frog Holler Forest

Just two years ago on the island’s south end, King County created a 60-acre public forest from previously private land. After two recent acquistions, the forest has nearly doubled and is expected to grow larger in the coming years.

In 2016, Frog Holler Forest — so-named for the local neighborhood and the tree frogs in the area — joined Vashon’s other community forests, such as Island Center Forest and Dockton Forest, after Richard and Sheila Doane sold their 60 acres to King County for preservation. The following spring, more than 50 people turned out for the dedication of the forest, already laced with trails that many in the equestrian community had used with permission when it was private land. But King County had bigger plans. In September of this year, it purchased 12 acres from island artists Don Cole and Joan Wortis, who live next to the forest. In November, the county closed on another 40 acres, previously owned by a woman in the Midwest, bringing Frog Holler Forest to 112 acres. Combined, King County paid $1.35 million for the two most recent purchases and is closer to its goals of increasing the forest to 200 acres or more.

Last week in their Frog Holler home, nestled in a forest clearing off Wax Orchard Road, Cole and Wortis talked about their decision to part with some of their land for conservation purposes. Wortis said the two had gone to the dedication of the first 60 acres last year and realized their acreage was “just sitting there.” They were already taking part in a forest stewardship program and knew they wanted the land to stay wild. In the intervening months, they worked with the county through all the steps to complete the transaction this fall.

“We are assuming it is going to be well stewarded and taken care of and people will enjoy it,” Wortis said.

She and Cole mentioned the forest-goers they expect to find on the trails among the trees: “The horseback riders, the dog-walkers and the next cougar.”

Wortis and Cole, both from New York, moved to the island in 1994. On a trip up the West Coast looking for their next home, they dismissed a variety of communities until their last stop in Seattle. Cole, who had had a place in the Adirondacks, wanted a home in the country, but they also wanted to be near a city. They added Bainbridge Island to the places they ruled out, but Vashon, which they visited just as their trip was ending, was a different story. When they looked at their current home — a former church, where the walls were big enough for Cole’s large paintings, classical music was playing, books were present and there was a large studio for them both to work in — their search came to an end.

After they moved in, friends back East would ask if they had a view. Yes, they said, because out their windows they could see an abundance of trees. Over the years, they spent a lot of time on the forest trails a short distance from their front door, but say they are happy to have their land open to the public and conserved.

“I feel 100 percent good that is this has happened,” Wortis said last week.

Cole agreed.

“We are really happy that this whole change has transpired,” he added.

The process went on for months, she said, but only had good words for the county.

“Every single person we have worked with has gone out of their way to be helpful in every way,” she noted.

Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust’s Executive Director Tom Dean assisted the county with the planning and purchases for Frog Holler Forest and said that initially the county was resistant to the idea of creating a new public forest on the island. Ultimately, though, officials were convinced about the importance of conserving some of the large tracts and parcels of forest at the island’s south end.

The primary goal is to prevent the fragmentation of forest tracks from development, Dean said. Additionally, the intent is to preserve existing trail systems, connect existing trail systems and use ecological forestry methods to improve wildlife habitat.

Dean has been at the helm of the Land Trust for 15 years, and in that time nearly than 1,700 acres has been conserved. He noted the wide array of benefits to the island that conserving land brings. Forests protect the aquifer, and research shows that forests and access to green spaces improves physical and mental health. He also cited climate change, saying that as conifers approach 80 years old, they transpire at a slower rate, making it possible for them to withstand hotter, dryer summers.

“It could be that the forest we preserve today might be the most resistant to climate change down the road somewhere,” he said.

King County’s Dave Kimmett, a project manager with the Natural Lands Program, indicated the effort to create Frog Holler Forest has been well received, noting that when he asks people if they have been there, most often they say yes.

“We have had nothing but positive feedback about the new site,” he said.

The county will determine what needs to be done to the forest to maintain or improve its health and will put together a forest stewardship plan for the land, Kimmett said. Officials will also reconfigure some of the trails, which will happen through a planning process in the near future. That plan will include what to do with a large meadow previously used for grazing on the original forest parcel. The two new parcels are all forested.

The funding to purchase Cole and Wortis’ 12 acres came from King County’s 2018 budget, Kimmitt said, and the funding for the 40 acres came from the 2019 budget. He noted that there will be more purchases to come, especially since King County implemented its Land Conservation Initiative last year, with the goal of preserving 65,000 additional acres throughout the county.

While Frog Holler Forest was created before that initiative, Kimmett said it is part of the effort in many ways and that King County is proactively reaching out to landowners about possibilities for further purchases.

“We are going to continue to look at every opportunity, not just in that part of the island, but other parts as well, to add more open space on the island,” he said. “We are working pretty hard on that.”

Frog Holler Forest is open to the public for walking, mountain biking and equestrian use. It is located east of Wax Orchard Road, between Camp Sealth Road and Bates Walk. Look for the Frog Holler Forest sign; Park along Wax Orchard Road. Dogs are to be leashed at all times.

This version of the story adjusts the number of acres the Land Trust has conserved under Tom Dean’s leadership and corrects the budget years for the land acquisitions.