Modern-day Regulation Up Against Homesteading Common Sense

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By Neva Knott

This past year my sister and I inherited a piece of land that was the homestead of our stepfather’s grandfather. He came from Scotland, somehow found his way to what is now Olympia, Washington. At that time, 1905, Washington was still the frontier, still territory, still wild. He staked his claim to 20 acres, and built a house on the cleared high portion of the property. He dug a well and lined it with cedar, built a small barn, a hen-house and a root cellar. The house stood on the land until some time during the Great Depression. There’s speculation that his wife’s family burned it down—he’d divorced her—or that his son—then the owner—had burned it for the insurance money. At the time there was some speculation that it was burglary, since the dishes went missing. About 10 years ago, the dishes were found buried on the property, under a cedar stump. This homesteader, great-grandpa Huntley, claimed the land before there were roads to it. He paid $280 for the land and a $300 bond to have the road built. And, he had to contribute 50 hours of labor toward getting that road down.

It’s a beautiful piece of property. Ten acres, wooded with native trees—alder, Douglas fir, and cedar. A little stream running through in a jagged pattern from corner to corner. And that’s where our problems begin. Wetlands. Buffer zones. Environmental regulation.

Woodard Creek runs through our property and drains into Henderson Inlet, which flows into Woodard Bay, which connects to Puget Sound. The inlet is prime shellfish growing ground, and the shellfish industry is a huge part of the economic make-up of this region. Woodard Bay is a Natural Resources Conservation Area, and Puget Sound is polluted enough without runoff from our little parcel of land.

There’s about an acre, maybe two, of high ground on the property. Possibly enough to make the lot buildable. Much of the property stands under water most of the winter. Wetlands flora validates the presence of this ecosystem even when the ground itself is dry.

According to county regulation, we must leave a 300-foot buffer around the wetlands. No logging, no building, no digging for septic. Given the pervasiveness of wet land on the property, not much is left for human habitation.

Wetlands are said to be the kidneys of the earth. They drain the land around them, filter groundwater of toxins like car oil and fertilizer and of general gunk like decomposed leaves and animal feces. They help rivers, lakes, and the ocean stay clean. The flux of water in wetlands carries nutrients across the landscape. Water fowl depend on these waterways for habitat. Wetlands provide some of the most important ecosystems services. Protection of wetlands is a newer area of environmental regulation; in the last few decades the importance of keeping these areas functioning—and of not filling them in—has come to the fore of environmental science. I agree with the science and the regulations for land use that are built upon it. But what to do with our land?

In homesteading times, common sense took the place of regulatory what-not. No person trying to live on his acreage would think to orient his waste stream near the water source. The interconnectedness of parts of the landscape were clear. It made sense that Woodard Creek running through the Huntley property connected to Puget Sound via all waterways between. And life depends on clean water. These days, the interconnectedness is hidden. Roads block water pathways that are diverted by culverts. Humans are so used to water coming into homes from the city source and the waste being carried away to a treatment center that it is easy to forget that nature has systems in play for all of these functions. When we live past the carrying capacity—the ability of an ecosystem to support all who live there—we butt up against regulation.

This evening, I learned much of what I know about our property by talking to my stepfather’s brother. He’s lived on his side of the homestead for several years, and has watched the landscape flux and flow seasonally. He’s walked the land. In about an hour, he explained to me more than I will ever get from a wetlands report or septic survey. Our conversation reminded me of the importance of knowing a place by feeling it. By hearing the stories of china hidden under cedars, and by watching the water table flux, the trees grow and decay, and the seasons change. That information is not found in the county records.

Whatever we decide to do with this land, we will honor the land itself and the waterways to which it drains.

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