LEP grew from a chain of events that started in 1989 with the birth of WSU Beach Watchers. 1989 was the year WSU Extension Director Donald Meehan convened an advisory group to consider broadening the scope of extension programming in Island County beyond agriculture.
Meehan brought together experts from WSU, state and local agencies and community leaders. The result was Beach Watchers, modeled after WSU’s nationwide Master Gardener program, where volunteers receive university training in exchange for a commitment of volunteer service to their communities.
“We have 212 miles of shoreline in this county. There’s a lot of interest in what happens at the beach. We need to begin understanding the impact of development and how the various ecosystems interconnect so we can take better care of them.”
Grant funding from the Department of Ecology’s Coastal Zone Management Program got Beach Watchers up and running with 10 volunteers the first year, but as the program caught hold it would soon become apparent that additional office space and sources of financial support would be needed.
Meanwhile, other events also were unfolding that would contribute to the need for a non-profit, tax-exempt organization to manage environmental education funds. By 1992, Island County had reached a painful crossroads – it was no longer possible to ignore nor endure the environmental costs of maintaining a traditional landfill. The county converted its Coupeville landfill to a transfer station and established several other “drop box” transfer points on Camano and Whidbey islands from which all solid waste would be shipped to Oregon for disposal. Waste Warriors (later Waste Wise Volunteers) was born on the Beach Watcher model – offering sophisticated environmental training to county residents in return for a commitment of community service. The Waste Wise Volunteers learn – and teach – ways to reduce, re-use and recycle garbage, and to compost as much yard waste as possible. They distribute literature at booths and fairs, sponsor recycling barrels at community events, maintain a composting demonstration site at Admiralty Head Lighthouse, and make presentations to schools and service clubs.
Beach Watchers was growing rapidly and by 1992 was ready for a formidable challenge — to bring back Coupeville’s historic summer festival of the 1930s and 40s, which had languished and disappeared during the war years. They saw the Water Festival as an opportunity to celebrate Penn Cove’s rich Native American heritage and attract tourists while also educating the community about the island’s reliance on clean water and the bounty of nature. Under Beach Watcher leadership the Water Festival flourished and carried out its educational mission about Whidbey Island’s water resources. In 2004, after a successful 11-year run, Beach Watchers celebrated a job well done and turned over management of the festival to a new community planning committee in order to redirect Beach Watcher resources to other environmental and scientific projects.
By 1993, the tiny WSU Extension office in Coupeville was being overrun with volunteers from 4-H, Master Gardeners and the hugely popular new Beach Watcher program. Coincidentally, Extension staff noticed that a few miles away at Fort Casey, the State Parks Department had closed Admiralty Head Lighthouse to the public because they lacked funds and staff to keep it open. A joint venture was proposed in which the Beach Watchers and Ebey’s Landing National Historical Preserve would provide volunteers to reopen it, with the Beach Watchers in the lead. The trial was successful and WSU Extension soon entered into an agreement with Parks to use office space on the upper floor for its environmental programs, in return for keeping the Lighthouse open to the public.
With reopening of the Lighthouse by the WSU environmental programs in 1993, Lighthouse docents began sharing their passion for history by leading visitors on tours of the building and the adjoining Fort Casey. Today, these dedicated volunteers lead tours for individual visitors who stop at the Lighthouse as well as for larger groups, including schools and family reunions, by special arrangement.
To help pay the costs of keeping the Lighthouse open, giving tours and operating the environmental programs, WSU Extension sought permission from Parks to open a gift shop at the Lighthouse and collect donations. To help manage the gift shop money, in 1994 a 501 c (3) non-profit organization was established called Lighthouse Environmental Programs (LEP). The benefits of the 501c(3) soon were obvious on a broader scale in attracting additional funds, grants and donations.
Keepers of Admiralty Head Lighthouse was formed to raise funds for preservation, restoration and education of programs at the lighthouse.
Keepers of Admiralty Head Lighthouse welcomes into membership anyone who loves lighthouses and wants to support restoration and enhancement activities at Admiralty Head Lighthouse. Contributions, large or small, are earmarked to preserve and protect Admiralty Head Lighthouse.
Because few if any funds are available for the preservation and restoration of the lighthouse, Keepers of Admiralty Head Lighthouse was formed to fill the gap.
When a young gray whale washed ashore near Lagoon Point on Whidbey Island late in 1998, the Beach Watchers recognized an opportunity to establish an extraordinary public educational exhibit in the local community. Led by US Navy biologist Matt Klope and WSU Beach Watcher coordinator Susan Berta, they obtained permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service to recover the carcass. They spent four days working in cold weather and high tides, cutting away the flesh, numbering each bone and carrying them nearly a mile down the beach to waiting trucks. Nearly two years later, with the help of many volunteers, the skeleton was completely restored. The US Navy SeaBees delivered “Rosie” to Coupeville wharf and suspended the 32-foot skeleton from the ceiling, where he remains on display to the delight of thousands of visitors every year.
In 1998, Beach Watchers embarked on a systematic, scientific initiative to identify, study, document and track the changes in Island County beaches and marine life. For the first time, a picture began to emerge of the immense diversity of life on Island County beaches and how it is being impacted by natural and human-caused activity. This effort has grown rapidly and today Beach Watchers are building a comprehensive database to include information gathered over time. This includes beach layouts, photographs, species lists, quadrants and beach profiles.
In 1999, the Waste Wise Volunteers took their educational efforts another step when they opened a Composting Demonstration Site near their offices at Admiralty Head Lighthouse. Volunteers maintain a variety of compost and worm bins to illustrate recommended methods of transforming household yard waste and kitchen garbage into garden amendments, reducing the volume of material that would otherwise wind up at Island County transfer stations for costly shipment to a distant regional landfill in Oregon.
Assisted by WSU Beach Watcher volunteers, Dan Penttila of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2000 began an intensive survey of Island County’s shoreline to identify and document forage fish spawning sites. The grant-funded work was initiated by the Island County Marine Resources Committee (MRC). Penttila and his Beach Watcher assistants would visit beaches by boat at low tide, go ashore and fill a large plastic bag with beach gravel, and record the location with a global positioning system. Later, Penttila would sift the gravel carefully at his lab for forage fish eggs. The regional forage-fish spawning habitat surveys evolved from this and became the largest geographic forage fish habitat assessment / mapping project in the world, identifying Puget Sound beaches used as spawning areas by surf smelt, Pacific sand lance and herring. These forage fish form the core of the food chain for salmon, rockfish, shore birds, diving birds and various other marine mammals. The forage fish component of the MRC’s larger nearshore project will establish a baseline for future monitoring, possible marine protected area designation, and enable other measures to guide the county’s shoreline users, planners, developers and property owners.
Eelgrass beds are critical habitat for forage fish and juvenile salmon. In June of 2000, the Island County Marine Resources Committee secured a grant from the Northwest Straits Commission for a two-part project to locate and map eelgrass beds. One part involved underwater videography. The other engaged the shoreline community directly to help better understand the role and importance of eelgrass. Beach Watchers prepared and mailed an informative questionnaire to 4,500 shoreline property owners asking them to go to their beaches during specific low-tide days and determine if any eelgrass was present. Surveys were completed and returned by an astonishing 13 percent. Of these, 392 found eelgrass on their beaches, including some areas previously believed totally devoid of it. The survey was a stunning success in achieving its twin goals — making property owners aware of eelgrass and its importance while adding significantly to our knowledge of the geographic distribution of this critically important plant in Island County.
Starting with a survey of Whidbey Island in 2002, WSU Beach Watchers and contractors for the Island County Marine Marine Resources Committee (MRC) have walked every foot of the Whidbey and Camano island shorelines with a satellite global positioning (GPS) system, mapping and photographing every man-made structure – bulkheads, pilings, concrete, steel rails and rubber tires. The work is sponsored by the MRC through a Northwest Straits Commission grant, and builds upon earlier Beach Watcher surveys. Data will be combined with ongoing surveys to help determine the impact of these structures on habitat for forage fish, salmon and other creatures.
On April 14, 2002 – armed with the necessary permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service — Beach Watchers from Camano Island recovered a male California Sea Lion carcass that had washed ashore on Tillicum Beach. Soon, an idea was born. The animal’s skeleton, when fully restored, would become the focal point and major draw of an environmental education display at the newest park in the Washington State Parks system – Camano Island’s own Cama Beach State Park. Beach Watchers removed the flesh and are reassembling 243 bones to create the exhibit. Jeff Wheeler, Camano Island State Parks area manager and a 2002 Beach Watcher graduate, remarked, “The park’s main goal is environmental education. Parks and Beach Watchers have the same goals — to educate both children and adults.” To completee the project, Beach Watchers organized themselves into separate committees devoted to assembly, display, education, fund raising, communications, documentation and scheduling, and an already-sucessful naming committee that dubbed the carcass “Salty.”
Admiralty Head Lighthouse marked its first century as Whidbey Island’s preeminent photogenic landmark in 2003. Friends of the Lighthouse sponsored a full August weekend of music, picnics, tours, activities and speeches that drew hundreds of visitors. The current Spanish-style stucco lighthouse was active only for a relatively short period – from 1903 until 1922 – when its light was extinguished as the age-of-sail gave way to steam. The building suffered some years of neglect from which it is still recovering. An original mule barn on the site was torn down and early furnishings of the building were lost.
Friends of the Lighthouse are raising funds to rebuild the mule barn to its original specifications so it may be used as LEP office space, freeing the main lighthouse building to be restored to “period” furnishings. Challenges of rebuilding the mule barn resulted in this plan being abandoned, at least for the present time.
In 2003, the WSU Beach Watchers introduced Shore Stewards on Camano Island. It’s a program designed to deliver front-line education and stewardship tips to the owners of shoreline property. Shore Stewards was developed by the Beach Watchers and the Marine Resources Committee and modeled after the National Wildlife Federation’s popular Backyard Wildlife Habitat program. In 2005 it began expanding to Whidbey Island and other Puget Sound counties. In December 2003, Shore Stewards enrolled United States Senator Patty Murray, who owns waterfront property on Whidbey Island’s Lagoon Point. The program emphasizes each property owner’s voluntary agreement to honor 10 salmon-friendly commandments of waterfront living. In return, the property owner is enrolled as a certified Shore Steward and receives a yard sign and other recognition. Education is delivered to property owners in a practical, 48-page “Guide to Shoreline Living,” as well as via the Shore Stewards Website, www.shorestewards.org , speakers, classes, tours and workshops.
On February, 2004 WSU Beach Watchers staged the largest public gathering in Island County history focusing on education about natural history, marine waters and the environment. Some 450 people turned out for Sound Waters University, by far the largest crowd ever for this annual one-day university. More than 60 classes were taught by scientists, authors, educators and government officials on a wide range of topics relating to the county’s beaches, geology, natural history and environment. This enormously popular annual event is, in many ways, a one-day crash course in the issues Beach Watchers study in depth during the course of their extended, formal training.
In 2005, with federal funding, Washington State University will expand its Beach Watcher program to the six other Northwest Straits Commission (NWSC) counties of northern Puget Sound. This program, pioneered in Island County, is an extraordinary community talent pool for marine environmental education. Since inception, Beach Watchers have volunteered more than 80,000 hours to protecting and preserving the fragile environment of Island County waters through education and public awareness.
Lighthouse license plates sold though the Washington Department of Licensing were issued. Special license plates help to fund restoration work in non-profit Washington lighthouses open to the public as well as Lighthouse Environmental Programs operated through WSU Island County Extension.
In 2007 the WSU Admiralty Head Lighthouse Docent Program was formed and the Docent Council was created. Its goals are to provide visitor access, promoting knowledge, appreciation and understanding of Admiralty Head Lighthouse.
Their vision is to make Admiralty Head Lighthouse a shining example of northwest maritime history. Formation of the Lighthouse Docent Council became the third WSU educational program to be a part of LEP.
The Keepers of Admiralty Head Lighthouse (first organized as Friends of Admiralty Head Lighthouse) was reorganized as a membership group to be a funding source for the preservation of Admiralty Head Lighthouse and the interpretation of its history. LEP provides fiscal management for the Keepers organization.