Sandra Staples-Bortner to retire from Great Peninsula Conservancy

Sandra Staples-Bortner, executive director of the Great Peninsula Conservancy, will retire at the end of this month after 11 years on the job. Those involved in the regional land trust say she will leave the organization much larger and stronger than before her arrival.

Sandra Staples-Bortner
Photo: Kenna Cox

Great Peninsula Conservancy — which protects salmon streams, forests and shorelines — was formed in 2000 by the merger of four smaller land trusts: Kitsap, Hood Canal, Indianola and Peninsula Heritage land trusts. See Kitsap Sun, May 23, 2000.

The goal was to create an organization large enough to hire full-time staff and manage a growing slate of properties, according to Gary Cunningham, longtime board member who was instrumental in the merger. The conservancy struggled financially in its early years, he said, but Sandra helped turn things around.

“She has definitely done the things that the board knew had to be done to make this a financially viable and stable organization that can protect property in perpetuity,” Gary told me.

Sandra was able to improve connections with people in the region, increase donations of land, implement fund-raising activities and ensure stewardship of the lands under control of the Great Peninsula Conservancy, he said. Sandra already understood the environmental issues, Gary added, and she quickly picked up on the legal and technical details — such as working out conservation easements to formalize land-management.

“We depend on the local community to keep us healthy,” Sandra told me. “Our founders did a great job in starting out, and we revise our procedures every couple of years to make things work better.”

With community support and grants from government agencies, the number of properties has grown along with more staffers to focus on specific efforts, such as acquisitions and fund-raising. The organization has played a role in conserving 10,500 acres, compared to 2,100 when Sandra arrived.

“I feel GPC has reached a strong point in time,” she said. “We have really talented, dedicated staff doing exciting conservation projects and reflecting desires to save this wonderful peninsula.”

Kitsap County Commissioner Rob Gelder said Sandra played a critical role in the Kitsap Forest and Bay Campaign, as she helped coordinate a coalition of diverse groups. She also helped to make the conservancy a partner in the Hood Canal Coordinating Council’s In-Lieu Fee Mitigation Program, a process that allows for complete compensation for environmental damage from development.

“It has been a great partnership,” Rob told me. “Sandra has had that great can-do vision, and she has had her fingers in a lot of things that will leave a lasting legacy.”

One of the more recent goals is to increase the public’s connections to the properties, such as leading community hikes to view important fish and wildlife areas. Information kiosks are being constructed to provide information about some of the larger properties.

Another new project is an outdoor camp for at-risk individuals, she said. “Most of them have never done anything like hike or spend time outdoors.” See job post for NextGen Outdoors Camp.

“Sandra has a knack for connecting people to the land and inspiring people to want to help save it,” said GPC President Kit Ellis in a press release. “She has made it easy for each of us to make a difference by joining a volunteer work party or making a donation.”

I asked Sandra to describe the most important land acquisition that occurred during her tenure, and she started off by talking about the ecological values protected by the recent acquisition of Camp Hahobas, a former Boy Scout Camp.

Then she mentioned the massive Kitsap Forest and Bay Project in North Kitsap, Grover’s Creek Preserve near Indianola and Felucy Bay Reserve on the Long Branch Peninsula. She talked about working to save much of Petersen Farm as an agricultural property, then she started talking about smaller acquisitions of importance. I think she could have gone on and on, describing the natural values of each property without choosing a favorite — as one might talk about their children or grandchildren.

For reference, here are links to some of these properties:

“They all have interesting stories,” Sandra noted.

Acquiring property or conservation easements to protect a property often begins with a love of the land by a longtime property owner or by family members who inherit the beloved property, Sandra said.

“Many land owners are as much about saving land as we are,” she noted.

To maintain each property, the organization tries to get a cash donation, known as a stewardship bequest. If the owner wants to donate an important piece of land but cannot provide stewardship funding, then GPC will seek outside tax-deductible donations or government grants.

High priorities for acquisition are salmon streams, shoreline areas and connected forest parcels that can help preserve wildlife-migration corridors, Sandra said. Also important are properties that allow people to enjoy wildlife.

“We’re fortunate on this peninsula that we still have amazing timberlands,” she noted, adding that private and state forestlands contain key habitats and should be maintained as working forests as long as possible.

In her retirement, Sandra plans to travel with her husband, play with her two young grandchildren and spend even more time outdoors.

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