As a "partnership park" managed by a trust board, Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve is the first of its kind in the national park system. Given the national trend toward preserving rural and historic landscapes, it will not be the last. In this reserve, the National Park Service was able to preserve a historic rural landscape at relatively low cost through the purchase of scenic easements and in cooperation with local governments. The NPS reduced or eliminated the services normally expected in national parks, such as visitor centers, rangers, and camping facilities, yet provided, along with the state of Washington, Island County, Coupeville, and local non-profit groups and volunteers, a quality experience for visitors.
Relatively little in National Park Service experience prepared NPS staff for the reserve. The Service gradually adapted to working with a local trust board and learned to adjust its system of operations. Reporting requirements, interpretive programs and resource management capabilities had to be tailored to a smaller unit lacking NPS personnel, buildings, or direct land management responsibilities. Habits of mind had to change as well. Until 1992, when EBLA regained its status as an NPS unit, an unspoken attitude lingered among some NPS personnel that EBLA was a lower priority than the traditional park units. This was rarely acknowledged in writing, but off-the-record discussions with NPS employees confirmed that EBLA did not gain immediate acceptance with everyone within the Service. A few managers were reluctant to expend energy and funds on a unit that the NPS did not control, and were uneasy about the political nature of funding and land management at the local level. But others were enthusiastic about the opportunity to preserve cost-effectively a valued cultural landscape, intrigued by the "experiment" of a citizen trust board, and grateful for the local community's commitment to managing EBLA for itself. People inside and outside the NPS also acknowledged that the cultural landscape in central Whidbey Island would not have survived without the National Park Service. Funding that only the federal government could provide for scenic easement acquisition was crucial. In addition, the Service applied its strengths well in EBLA, particularly in its ability to provide planning, and technical and operational advice. As one person said, "nobody does parks like the Park Service."
National Park Service expertise was indeed vital, because the citizens' advisory board and the trust board initially lacked experience in planning and managing a reserve. Trust board members were not always familiar with the intricacies of zoning codes or land and scenic easement management; nor was each person equally experienced in such areas as interpretation, historic architecture, or design review. Of continuing concern to board members is finding the time to perform their duties and accomplish their goals.
The trust board volunteers donate countless hours to the unsung task of administering a complex public entity. They are reserve ambassadors who help keep enthusiasm high within the community. They develop community and visitor services and educational programs, link central Whidbey Island and government professionals and resources, and keep watch over scenic easements and the cultural landscape within the reserve. Without their vigilance, the reserve could lose its integrity, for the trust board is the glue that holds the reserve together. But, like many volunteers, they are involved in other community efforts; all have professional and personal obligations, as well. While trust board members are generally highly committed to the reserve, frustrations occasionally surface regarding the amount of time individual members can commit to the reserve and about the pace at which the board is able to accomplish its goals. This stems in part from how individual members perceive the trust board: as a working board or as a board of directors. Members have become increasingly involved in day-to-day activities and projects because there is too much for the staff to do. The board relies heavily on the energy and planning experience of its coordinator and the administrative skills of its office manager. Like the trust board, neither employee is full-time. Their limited hours often result in delays in important projects. It also means that the trust board office is frequently closed with no staff to greet visitors personally or answer the phone. No one wishes to settle for this situation permanently. The board feels "unprofessional," Chairwoman Pat Howell has remarked, if it cannot meet its goals in a timely manner.
Funding clearly remains a significant issue for managing the reserve. The National Park Service can provide no more than fifty percent of the EBLA budget, as stated in the enabling legislation. Support at the community level must include sufficient cash and in kind contributions to maintain an adequate level of staff assistance and program funding. A high level of commitment from Coupeville and Island County is therefore vital. The Island County commissioners must especially be willing to support the reserve. The interlocal agreement that established the formal role of the four governmental partners specified no set level of funding from any of them, although Island County has established a precedent of contributing $10,000 annually. However, this could change; the reserve is not yet a line item in the county's annual budget. Only Island County can provide enough cash to meet EBLA's operational needs. Given frequent changes in county commissioners, support from Island County is a continuing source of anxiety for the trust board and the NPS.
The National Park Service is as concerned as the local citizenry about its ability to complete its scenic easement acquisition program. Without congressional appropriations for purchasing easements, the Service has been unable to accomplish the goals set forth in the EBLA land protection plan. The trust board and other friends of the reserve, such as U. S. Congressman Al Swift, have worked hard to garner congressional support for the reserve, and the recent defeat of an appropriation was a sharp disappointment. Such losses exacerbate local fears that the National Park Service will not be able to act if another major landowner decides to subdivide his or her land. The development of a few key parcels could still damage the integrity of the reserve. Until the land protection plan is fulfilled, the reserve's supporters will remain uneasy.
In many parts of the reserve, however, the National Park Service was able to remove the predatory side of economics and preserve a landscape in which agriculture and other land uses could shift and adjust. It found a viable, if underfunded, way to marshal local resources in service to a larger regional and national interest. The community goal to manage development, and the NPS mission to preserve nationally significant natural and cultural assets, are in harmony.
The NPS and the board are deeply sensitive to their ability to influence the future. They know that some citizens fear that too high a profile could jeopardize the lifestyle and the peace of central Whidbey Island. Board members do not generally regard the reserve as a source of economic development. At the same time, they realize that the visibility of the reserve must remain sufficiently high to ensure local support and commitment. The reserve, as some trust board members have noted, is not a preserve. It is a multipurpose concept which can both stimulate public use and provide a tool for environmentalism.
The trust board and the National Park Service recognize that, in the minds of many citizens, the effort to create and sustain the reserve has represented a kind of struggle for the soul of the community. As this report illustrates, central Whidbey Island has been an arena in which the delicate balance of land use and landscape preservation has been debated. It has taken finesse, compromise, and a willingness to cooperate to create the reserve. The experience of Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve is changing the minds of many people about the way a community can live and grow. So far, the experiment has not failed, but without funding for easement acquisitions and a full-time staff, the reserve will remain in a precarious position. The job is not yet done.
Last Updated: 27-May-2000