Orchard owners Eliot and Tina Scull are feeling the squeeze of urban development around their nine-acre apple orchard at Fourth Street in East Wenatchee, Washington, and have decided to stop farming the orchard.
But rather than sell the land, which would be worth several hundred thousand dollars as a housing site, they’ve offered to donate it to the Eastmont Metropolitan Park District so that it can be developed as a park to serve the area’s growing community. The Sculls envision open space, trees, picnic tables, a walking trail, and an area for Frisbee golf.
"Since we’ve owned that orchard, we’ve seen the orchard around us go from orchard to dense housing developments," Tina said. "Our concern was there were no new parks for this large residential area."
The Sculls also own a 20-acre apple and cherry orchard at Tenth Street in East Wenatchee, where they live. However, Eliot is quick to point out that he and his wife are not typical orchardists. Both had careers as physicians before retiring ten years ago.
"I consider myself sort of a fake as an orchardist because I’m a physician who loves the orchard industry and loves to be involved in it, but I could never claim to be a real orchardist," he said.
They bought their 20 acres of land at Tenth Street in 1978, three years after moving to Wenatchee from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It had been a dryland wheat farm but had not been farmed for a long time.
Eliot grew up in Maryland and Tina in Seattle. One of the reasons Wenatchee appealed to them was the area’s emphasis on agriculture, its open spaces, and beautiful environment.
"I fell in love with the country, the mountains, the rivers, the orchards, the air, and the play of the light on the hills," Eliot said. "I also realized, having lived in cities all over the country and traveled a lot when I was young, how precious this place is and how precious the open space and the environment is. We need to figure out how we can all live on this planet and take care of it at the same time."
Soon after they bought the land, a friend and neighbor Mike Scott helped them plant the orchard and offered to manage it. They planted Red and Golden Delicious and added Granny Smiths the following year. They expanded by buying the Fourth Street orchard about ten years later and converted it from Red Delicious to Braeburn.
As an orchard owner, Eliot learned a lot about fruit growing. Pruning in the orchard was a welcome weekend chore for an ophthalmologist who spent most of his working days in the dark.
"When I retired, I could not wait to run the orchard myself," he recalled.
The couple built a home at the orchard when they retired in 1998, but their retirement coincided with a dramatic downturn in the apple market, and resulted in many a sleepless night.
"We were actually growing good fruit, and I was managing it myself," Eliot said. "It was a nightmare. No matter what I did, we were losing a whole lot of money, and we were retired, so that was very frightening. It was very frustrating because I could not control my destiny. I have a good understanding of what everyone went through at that point."
After three difficult years of running the orchard himself, Eliot tore out his Red Delicious trees and replaced them with Bing cherries, and leased out the orchard. It’s been leased ever since. The property includes an undeveloped south-facing slope that would be suitable for vineyard, but the Sculls treasure the shrub steppe and its many wild flowers, such as larkspur, arrowleaf balsamroot, and prairie stars.
The Sculls have always loved the outdoors and been concerned about the environment. Soon after arriving in Wenatchee, they became active in local conservation efforts. In 1975, they were among about a dozen conservationists who attended a congressional hearing in Wenatchee on proposed legislation to protect the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. They were vastly outnumbered by about 3,000 hard-hatted loggers opposing the plan.
"We had to stand up and testify," Eliot recalled. "It took a certain amount of courage to get up and say what we said. I remember all these faces looking up at me with hostile expressions."
Undeterred, both Eliot and Tina (who was a family practitioner) went on to become active in many local, regional, and statewide conservation groups. In 1985, Eliot was a founder member of the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, which now boasts between 600 and 700 members. He recently resigned from the board after serving for 23 years. Tina is now in her tenth year on the board.
Eliot has also been a member of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission since 1999 and was chair five years ago. He estimates that conservation work takes up about a third of his waking hours.
"I love it because I get to meet all sorts of interesting people," he said. "You can’t believe the number of people out there who care. That’s what keeps me going."
Through their involvement in statewide organizations, the Sculls have been able to see what other communities are doing to preserve open space, maintain the quality of their lands and water, and maintain the quality of life for the people who live there, Tina said. "That’s an inspiration."
The Wenatchee area has lost many of its orchards in the past 30 years, and Eliot said that as the remaining orchards disappear, it is critical to plan for a greater population that will be less mobile because of high fuel costs. And it will be important to have recreational opportunities close by.
"Personally, I don’t think there will be an orchard in Wenatchee or East Wenatchee in ten years," he said. "I think the pressure of development is going to be too great. The land is too valuable."
The Chelan-Douglas Land Trust is working on a conservation futures program, which would use public funding to buy land or conservation easements so that when orchardists retire, for example, the land could be preserved as open space or developed into parks instead of being developed for housing. For the program to become a reality, tax revenue will be required, and Eliot said it could be difficult to convince the community at large that it is worth their money.
Tina said she hopes people will take a long-term view and be willing to invest in the community for the future.
Another way to preserve open space is through cluster development. Development rights can be transferred so that a developer can build high-density housing on part of a parcel of land in exchange for leaving the rest of the property as open space.
"We can’t stop growth," Eliot observed. "But we can shape it and direct it a little bit. I think it’s critical we do that, otherwise we’re going to end up with nothing but housing developments all over the place."
Eliot said he’s had calls from developers asking if he’s interested in selling their Tenth Street orchard. His answer has been a firm, "Thank you, but no."
As long as they live there, they plan to keep the orchard. If they ever move and sell it, they hope the
20 acres can remain in once piece, perhaps as a ranchette, if not orchard. The topography makes it unsuitable as a park.
Eliot said the greatest challenge in his 30 years of conservation work has been convincing government of the important of planning ahead in terms of protecting the environment.
"I feel we need to live lighter on the earth and use less resources, and take care of our communities and invest in our communities because good conservation is good economics. If we do good conservation, then this community will prosper, and if we don’t, it’s going suffer. I believe that very strongly."
"We all have to live in balance with this earth, and we need to nurture it because we hope our species is going to live for a long time," Tina added. "The quality of our life is very much tied up in the quality and the diversity of the land."