ORCAS ISLAND, San Juan County — From his waterfront mansion, former Weyerhaeuser executive Norton Clapp stared up at a gorgeous green mountain that, from certain angles, cuts the silhouette of a turtle. Hence, its name: Turtleback Mountain.
Clapp was in the business of turning trees to timber, but since this forest was his personal vista, he wanted to save it. So he did what a megamillionaire can do — he bought the mountain.
Mount Constitution may be Orcas Island's highest point, but Turtleback is its holy grail. Along the ferry route from Orcas to San Juan Island, the turtle arches its back, visible to all. It can be seen clearly from parts of Lopez and Shaw islands, and serves as a marker for boaters lost in the straits, unable to tell the islands apart.
Through a series of transactions starting in the 1950s, Clapp amassed much of Turtleback — 1,578 acres, an area larger than several of the smaller San Juan islands — and the mountain eventually became his private retreat.
Up top, he built what he called a gazebo but what others might call a small house — a romantic hideaway with picture windows, wood beams, deck, fireplace, sleeping loft and a purist's view of the islands and beyond.
As long as Clapp owned Turtleback, the people of the San Juans could be comfortable that the mountain would be protected. But now, 10 years after Clapp's death, Turtleback is a threatened landscape, up for sale to the highest bidder, the latest conflict in the eternal tension between conservation and growth in the San Juans.
When Clapp died, he bequeathed Turtleback to the Medina Foundation, a charity he founded in 1947 to provide money to Puget Sound-area organizations that help poor and disabled people. Last year, it gave $3.56 million in grants to 164 nonprofits.
Clapp's only instruction to the foundation's board, which is made up exclusively of family members, was to hold the property for five years. That deadline long expired, the foundation announced in August it was putting the property on the market. It is not giving a first option for purchase to conservation groups.
"As important as conservation and preservation of forest land is, it is not within the mission of the Medina Foundation," said Patricia McKay, foundation executive director. "The driving criterion will be the price."
Under existing zoning, as many as 79 houses can be built on Turtleback, one per 20 acres, and developers began inquiring as soon as news of the sale spread. The foundation wants all offers in hand by the middle of this month.
Very little time
Islanders are seething, scared and scrambling. Conservation groups have adopted a strategy of issuing warnings, none too subtle, to prospective developers: Dare to mess with Turtleback, and you will lose money, gain enemies and spend what will seem like an eternity in court.
"This is an uphill battle and we have very little time," said Tim Seifert, executive director of the San Juan Preservation Trust. "But it's definitely worth the run. People are contacting us; we're not calling them, asking, 'What can we do? What can we do?' "
Turtleback stirs up passion even though it has been legally off-limits to the public for almost 50 years and few have scaled it all the way to Clapp's gazebo and taken in the view.
Clapp's hideaway is a midcentury time capsule, from the orange leather sofas in the living room to an unopened bar of Lux white beauty soap above the kitchen sink.
History reveals itself within Clapp's guest book, which rests on a 1960s-vintage Zenith console TV, next to the rabbit ears. The first entry is his own, from May 30, 1970: "1st meal (lunch) with some furniture — warm and overcast." Three weeks later, he shares the summer solstice and Father's Day with guests and enjoys the first cocktail hour at the gazebo.
The entries from Clapp's guests end abruptly in August 1978. Entries begin anew in 1989, but these visitors are trespassers who have hiked the mountain and hung out inside the gazebo.
Dave and Eva wrote on Dec. 1, 1995: "We came in through the bathroom window. We made sure no one was there. Making love inside a circle of candles, heated by the fire and fueled by our love. We are on top of the world!"
And how. The view from Turtleback arguably is the most spectacular in all of the San Juans, stretching all the way to Canada.
The Medina Foundation oversees a small logging operation on Turtleback that thins the forest to reduce the risk of fire. Medina also has hired Bart Curtis to be the mountain's caretaker. He periodically inspects the gazebo to make sure no vandalism has occurred. But the trespassers tend to show respect.
A marijuana roach has been left on the kitchen table, but Curtis has never discovered a broken window.
Homes on ridges
On the other side of Orcas, Buck Mountain rises nearly as high as the 1,519-foot Turtleback.
In the 1980s, roads were cut on Buck Mountain, trees were cleared and houses — big ones — were built on ridges to maximize their views. Locals now hold Buck out as an example of development gone bad, scarred by porch lights where once there was pitch black.
Keeping Turtleback green — and dark — has been an obsession on Orcas, as well as the rest of the San Juans.
Rachel Adams and Marilyn Anderson live near the summit of another Orcas Island mountain — Mount Woolard — in a glass house.
Technically, it's made of wood with an environmentally correct sod roof, but the couple, former Army physical therapists, acknowledge that from the outside, it all looks pretty transparent.
They own their piece of paradise — a 4,000-square-foot retirement home built among golden eagles and near the home of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" author Richard Bach — but they oppose anyone owning one on Turtleback.
Adams reconciles that by pointing out that Mount Woolard already was developed when they bought six years ago.
"Mount Woolard is not the soul of Orcas like Turtleback is," she said.
The Medina Foundation isn't putting a price on Turtleback, leaving that to those who make bids.
But the scuttlebutt on Orcas is that the foundation estimates the value at about $25 million. That would represent a huge chunk of change for a foundation with total assets, not counting Turtleback, of $83.5 million. Turtleback is the foundation's single most valuable asset, but one that produces no income to plug into grants for the social services it supports.
"Some board members have expressed a sentimental attachment to the mountain but at the same time, the board is really dedicated to the mission of the foundation," said board President Gail Gant, daughter of former Gov. Booth Gardner, who is Clapp's stepson.
"When we wear our Medina Foundation hats and not our Norton Clapp descendant hats, we think that what we should be doing is selling Turtleback and using the revenue from that sale to increase the amount of money we can put back into the community through grants that fulfill our mission."
No one is questioning the foundation's good work. But some islanders are outraged that the foundation isn't giving preference to groups that want Turtleback preserved.
One critic is Linda Henry, Clapp's stepdaughter, who is estranged from some members of the family. She has lived at the foot of Turtleback since 1979 and was a caretaker of the mountain for the foundation.
She said she appreciates the desire of Medina officials to divest the property, "but the manner they have gone about it to generate income is very self-serving. They haven't looked beyond the dollar."
Henry and others believe that rather than soliciting offers from developers, the foundation should be negotiating an arrangement that would in effect transfer all or most of the land for conservation in exchange for tax relief or other financial benefits.
"What the Medina Foundation has done is unconscionable," Henry said. "Why not look at Turtleback as belonging to people, as opposed to an asset?"
Farm land saved
Conservationists want the foundation to follow the example of Vern and Sidney Coffelt, whose 190-acre farm looks up at the east face of Turtleback.
The couple sell fresh lamb, beef and pork to their neighbors, as well as wool comforters and sheepskins.
About 10 years ago, they sold a conservation easement for five of nine developable parcels to the San Juan County Land Bank. The Coffelts still own the land and can farm it, but the number of lots that could be developed on it is now restricted.
The money they got for their development rights provides them a financial cushion. But they also were motivated by a desire to preserve agricultural land.
Vern Coffelt, who was born on Turtleback land his grandfather acquired in the 1890s, said the couple didn't want to see their family farm go the way of others that are disappearing across the country. He remembers when Orcas was a rural community, with few high-end homes or vacation cottages peppering the landscape.
Sidney Coffelt sees the potential development of Turtleback as further widening the chasm between the island's haves and have-nots. "It's already way too upscale for us," she said.
As Vern milks Sadie the jersey cow, Sidney feeds a trio of voracious pigs.
"You can't imagine how many people stop me on the street, almost on a weekly basis, and say they appreciate us keeping our land as open space," she said. "It's amazing how much people on Orcas care."
They also can be quite savvy.
Islanders have beaten back developments before, such as Norton Clapp's plan in the 1980s to build more than 100 houses and condominiums on Madrona Point, a 30-acre promontory that extends into East Sound. Clapp relented after conservationists led the opposition on the basis of the land being a former burial site for the Lummi Indians.
Conservationists are taking a hard line on Turtleback, too, laying out in an open "buyer beware" letter to developers the potential roadblocks that could tie up their plan — and money — for years.
They say the mountain has historic significance to the Lummis and 18th-century European exploration. They also say the mountain is environmentally significant for its wetlands and clusters of rare Garry oak.
Mostly, though, they warn that given the costs of bringing roads, power, septic systems and water to Turtleback, maximum development just won't pencil out.
Conservationists hope that by scaring away developers, they will buy time for those seeking to conserve Turtleback. The millions of dollars it would take to acquire the mountain will be difficult for conservation groups to amass, however.
A better bet is that one or a few conservation-minded developers will buy Turtleback, maybe build a smattering of well-cloistered houses near the top and turn over the rest as a conservation easement, thereby barring further development.
Many who live on Orcas say this is no time to retract one's head inside a shell and hope for the best. Visitors also seem to sense what's at stake. In a September 2004 entry in the gazebo guest book, a trespasser from out of state wrote:
"To all those who visit: Thank you for preserving the traditions of journey and reward. As I now sit and span the view and trek, I sense the beauty and scope of Orcas. I sit with the Indians who have preserved this land, the hikers who have preserved this guest clubhouse. The silence of possibility fills my heart — please take a moment to experience yourself in this spot — a very important ritual, and carefully pass it on.
"The best Indians leave no tracks."
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org