Turtleback Turns Ten
Remembering the Lesson of a Decade
Late on a Friday afternoon in August 2005, the phone rang at the San Juan Preservation Trust’s office. Executive Director Tim Seifert answered. “It was the head of the Medina Foundation, in Seattle,” he recalls. “She wanted to let us know that the foundation would be putting Turtleback Mountain on the market the next day.”
It was a call to arms.Read more
The 1,578-acre Turtleback Mountain property—pieced together over decades by Weyerhaeuser executive Norton Clapp and bequeathed to the Medina Foundation upon his death in 1995—was a real-estate developer’s dream. The proof came in March 2006, when a developer offered the full $18.5 million asking price, with plans to build 37 luxury estates on the mountain’s slopes and summit.
“The Medina Foundation gave us the opportunity to buy the property,” says Steve McKeon, an SJPT Trustee (both then and now), “but only if we could match the developer’s offer. The Trust had never raised more than about $800,000. Many board members were very reluctant to take on the project, fearing that the Trust’s hard-earned reputation would be tarnished if we failed to find the money.”
Other Trustees “believed that this was the very prospect the Preservation Trust was founded for,” says Jonathan White, who also served on the board at the time. “If we didn’t try to save this mountain, why did we exist? We had to try, even if it meant failing.”
Just before the critical board meeting, Tim enlisted the Trust for Public Land as a fundraising partner. “This gave our board the courage to take on the challenge,” he says. “In June 2006, we made an offer. The Medina Foundation accepted it on the condition that the closing would be held on November 15. That gave us six months to complete the biggest fundraising campaign in the history of San Juan County.”
The County Land Bank committed $10 million. The remaining $8.5 million came from more than 2,000 generous gifts of all sizes, from precious piggy-bank change to seven-figure foundation checks.
You may well have been part of this amazing outpouring of community support. Some 1,500 people flocked to a rally at Coffelt Farm that netted around $100,000. Donations flowed in from as far away as New York and Alaska. Gary Larson, “The Far Side” cartoonist and part-time Orcas resident, even came out of retirement to create a “Saving Turtleback Mountain” cartoon, which was printed on t-shirts.
“Only a few days before the deadline, we hit our goal,” Tim says. “We surprised ourselves! Many of those who made it happen had never given anything to us before. It was truly a grassroots campaign.”
Thanks to the ongoing support of members like you, the 10 years since that landmark victory have been our most ambitious and productive ever. Together, we have tackled extraordinary projects like Watmough Bight, Vendovi Island, Tiptop Hill, Guemes Mountain, Point Disney, the Henry Isthmus, Mount Grant, and now Zylstra Lake, among many others.
Much more work likes ahead, both in conserving more cherished island places and in caring for the protected lands we already have. Your membership makes this work possible. Soon you will receive a request in the mail for an annual membership gift. When that letter arrives in November, please remember that each gift, large or small, re-affirms the hopeful lesson that Turtleback taught us: that, together, we can move mountains to save what we all love most about these islands—not just for our generation, but forever.