Island Dispatch | February 2014

Photo by Kurt Thorson


It’s a mystery…

Golden Indian paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta), a showy wildflower, once thrived throughout the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada. It is now facing extinction. From Oregon’s Willamette Valley to the southern prairies of Puget Sound to the islands of the Salish Sea, most of this rare plant’s habitat has been either converted into agriculture or cleared away for human settlement. Today the plant is only known to exist on 11 sites in Washington and British Columbia, and even these populations are dwindling before our eyes. Both the United States and Canada now consider this an endangered species, and government agencies on both sides of the border are working urgently to bring the paintbrush populations back to a sustainable level.

In 1989, Rick Rubin and Patti Rouen purchased their property on San Juan Island. They built their home in the woods and placed horses and llamas in their pastures. Every spring they noticed masses of golden yellow spikes peeking out from the meadow grasses, but gave them little thought until US Fish & Wildlife biologists started taking notice. It turns out that – for some unknown reason – this modest little pasture is home to the second largest population of Golden Indian paintbrush in the world. In fact, it is believed to be the only spot in the world where its population is actually expanding.

To date, most of these plants have been found on coastal sites in marginal growing conditions where there is no history of agricultural activity. The existence of such a flourishing population on this inland property – which has been subject to generations of farming – has perplexed even the most experienced Castilleja researchers. Compounding the confusion is the age of the Rubin-Rouen plants, which rarely appear to exceed two years in age. These young plants are regenerating rapidly as Rick and Patti conduct varying management practices that include light grazing and occasional mowing.

In late 2013, Rick and Patti took steps to permanently protect this valuable property by donating both land and a conservation easement to the Preservation Trust. In addition to prohibiting future development of the paintbrush site, they have also generously allowed Preservation Trust botanists onsite to study the plants. Scientists who have dedicated their careers to working with Castilleja are excited to have the opportunity to learn more about this notoriously successful population. As Rick and Patti continue to manage this property as they always have, we hope to apply the lessons we learn to increase the worldwide population of this precious – and mysterious – prairie flower.

In addition to acquiring conservation land, the Preservation Trust’s mission extends to caring for the places we’ve protected. Golden Indian paintbrush restoration efforts are underway on San Juan, Lopez and Waldron Islands, and we continue our never-ending work to remove invasive species, re-introduce extirpated plants and animals, and restore compromised or threatened habitat throughout the San Juan archipelago.


In late December 2013, the San Juan Preservation Trust purchased a 61-acre conservation easement on Stuart Island. With 4,400 feet of undeveloped rocky shoreline, pocket beaches, old growth forest and an extensive network of nearby conserved lands, this scenic property on Reid Harbor provides vital marine riparian habitat for salmon and forage fish.

“We’ve been discussing conservation options with the Cooley-Gilliom-Cooley family, which owns this property, for 10 years,” said Debby Clausen, the Preservation Trust’s Director of Conservation. “Its importance to salmon recovery efforts allowed us to complete this project.”

This acquisition protects natural shoreline processes and vegetation (including eelgrass), water quality and native habitat for salmon, surf smelt, Pacific sand lance and Pacific herring. Washington State’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board contributed $795,000 through its Puget Sound Acquisition & Restoration Fund, while the landowners significantly reduced the price of the easement to make the deal come together.

The Preservation Trust has been working with the Stuart Island community for 15 years to protect the area around Reid Harbor. This conservation easement, which expands protection to more than 400 acres and two miles (60%) of Reid Harbor’s shoreline, represents a key milestone in this neighborhood effort.


Until Bob Roseburg befriended Mat and Katherine Mottola, he had never been to the San Juans and he had never thought about conservation.

The Mottolas introduced Bob to the islands and, after 26 years as an art teacher, he retired to San Juan Island with his partner Edwin Thorpe. He purchased an 8.6 acre property atop a hill with sweeping views. His garden became his studio, and flowers his medium. While enjoying his beautiful surroundings, he observed the Mottolas and other neighbors protecting their land with conservation easements. He followed their example but went a step further. After permanently protecting his property with an easement, he donated it to the Preservation Trust with a reserved life estate, which allows him to remain in his hilltop home as long as he wishes.

“I wish people would talk more openly about their estate plans. I feel good about what I’ve done for the Trust, and I want people to know about it so they might consider doing the same!”