Wax Orchard: Charting the future of a landscape rich in history

This gentle sweep of pasture and forest near the center of the island holds stories for the families who once owned it.

The land — a gentle sweep of pasture and forest near the center of the island — holds stories for the families who once owned it.

Martha Ernst remembered the time she crouched behind a rock, watching her father dynamite massive fir stumps to clear it for pasture. Her brother, Bob Ernst, recalled his boyhood on the land — laying irrigation lines, castrating cattle, repairing fences. Anna Swain mentioned picking cherries from her parents’ once-abundant orchard and catching salamanders in the pond.

They recalled Christmas parties at the Sestrap family home; stealing peaches from the orchard; skating on Ernst Pond in the dead of winter.

Last weekend, standing in the iconic field at the corner of S.W. 220th and Old Mill Road S.W. — famous for both the Vashon Sheepdog Classic and its previous owner, the late businessman Tom Stewart — the three had another story to tell: Their joy that a piece of property their families loved is now in public ownership.

Said Martha Ernst of her father, Frank Ernst, who died 37 years ago: “Dad is dancing a jig.”

King County purchased 110 acres last fall after brokering a $4 million deal with Stewart’s real estate company, Development Services of America. Last week, the county held its first public meeting about the property, an online gathering that drew more than 100 people to discuss how the land — temporarily named Wax Orchard Park — should be managed.

Will a portion of the field become Vashon’s first off-leash dog park? Will the sheepdog trials, on hold as a public event for the last three years, resume? Could a section of it be used for community farming? What should it be called?

Both Bob Ernst, whose family owned the fenced field where the sheepdog trials have been held, and Anna Swain, whose parents owned Wax Orchards Farm on the western side of the parcel, were at the virtual meeting. They don’t have strong feelings, they said, about the eventual usage. They’re simply glad it won’t be subdivided into private lots.

“Of all the things that could have happened to it, this is about the best that I could have imagined,” said Bob Ernst.

Swain said she felt tearful at times during the meeting. “I’m very happy,” she said. “Thrilled, actually.”

The county’s purchase includes not only the famous pasture along Old Mill Road but also a wooded swath that borders it — an expanse of Douglas fir and madrone forest laced with four miles of trails. One of the trails skirts Ernst Pond — called Wild Wood Pond on county maps — and follows a section of Fisher Creek. Another 50 acres are in the county’s Farmland Preservation Program. It’s also rich in bird life: Kestrels, northern harriers and other raptors — some seldom seen on Vashon — are drawn to the bounty of rodents in the meadows.

During last week’s meeting, Greg Rabourn, Vashon’s community steward for the county, said certain uses are not possible because of restrictions attached to the funding sources the county used for its purchase. Active recreation — such as soccer or pickleball — are not permitted. Hiking, horseback riding, and other non-motorized trail uses are allowed, he said, as is agriculture.

Since its purchase of the Wax Orchard parcels, the county has done little to manage the property, save for some fence removal and brush-clearing around the trailheads, said Joe Van Hollebeke, the county’s park maintenance coordinator on Vashon. “We’re waiting until we hear from you before we implement much change,” he told the online group.

So far, the county has received two proposals from island groups for uses of the land, David Kimmett, a natural lands manager for the county, said.

Friends Into Dogs Organization (FIDO) has proposed a three-acre off-leash dog park at the south end of the large field. And organizers of the Vashon Sheepdog Classic, whose 2017 event drew a record crowd of 9,000, have asked to resume the trials, beginning in 2024. They’d also like to work with the county to keep the pasture in active agriculture, Kimmett said.

In the discussion that followed, several people said Vashon, where dogs are estimated to number upwards of 2,000, needs an off-leash park. Dee Munson, a dog-lover who has lived on Vashon for 40 years, called Vashon “an underserved area” for dogs. Noting how long she has lobbied for a dog park, she added: “Before I die, please.”

Others expressed concern about the impact a concentration of dogs could have on the property, as well as the visuals of a dog park — fences bisecting the rolling sweep of land that is one of the island’s beloved “viewscapes,” as one islander put it. Charlie Siskel suggested the county tape out the proposed area “to allow people to see what it will look like.”

Many islanders, noting the property’s long history and ecological importance, thanked the county for its purchase. “This is an incredibly rich confluence of nature, culture and agriculture — it’s kind of the best of Vashon right here,” said Jil Stenn, who lives near the property.

Laurie Geissinger, another islander, said she was “beyond thrilled about this purchase.”

Because the property provides key open space elements — habitat, recreational and agricultural values — “it offers an opportunity for education about how these elements interact,” she said. The county, for instance, could showcase how to manage working lands so that they remain healthy for raptors or grow hay that struggling small-scale farmers could afford, she said. “The scenic value of farmland is outstanding,” she added.

Strong support was voiced for the sheepdog trials resuming on the property. Others, meanwhile, expressed concerns about parking, potential conflicts between equestrians and dog owners, and trail-widening projects that could change the feel of the forest.

“The trails are beautiful and in character with the forest,” said Howard Stenn, a frequent visitor. Noting how wide some trails are in other county-owned forests, he added, “I hope that won’t happen here.”

A few days later, Bob and Martha Ernst, whose parents bought the land in 1951, and Anna Swain, whose Estonian-born grandparents developed the famous Wax Orchards Farm, met at the property and talked about the land’s history.

At one point, Frank Ernst — Bob and Martha’s father — grazed 90 head of shorthorn cattle on the pasture, rotating them from one fenced part to another to protect the soil. Swain’s grandparents — and following them, her parents, Betsy and Robert Sestrap — managed a 70-acre apple orchard, an even larger cherry orchard and a small stand of peach trees.

The Ernst family carved the pasture out of the forest — felling trees, dynamiting stumps, then collecting manure from nearby chicken farms to create soil fertile enough to grow hay, Bob Ernst recalled. Their father was an airline pilot, but Bob and Martha Ernst said he loved the physical labor of farming. He built the pond as an irrigation source for the pasture, thinned and limbed the forest and named the pasture he created after his three children: MarLiBo Meadows, for Martha, Libby, and Bob.

Both families were friendly with Tom Stewart, and when they were ready to sell — the Ernsts in 1997 and the Sestraps in 2000 — they opted to sell to him in large part because it was a way to keep the land intact. “Tom was a good steward of the land,” Swain said.

Now, as they contemplate the future, they’re not worried about what lies ahead for the property under county ownership. “We’d like to see it maintain as much of its natural character, but I sure don’t want to tell the community how they should use it,” said Bob Ernst, who lives in Seattle.

“It’ll be open space, and everyone will be able to enjoy it,” added Swain, who lives on the north end of the island. “I think they’ll work out the dog park and the open space part — I think that’ll all work out just fine. This is Vashon. Everyone has lots of opinions.”

County seeks input

King County is seeking input on the best uses for “Wax Orchard Park,” as well as its new name. To weigh in, visit online and take a brief survey. The survey closes on April 5.