A retired 81-year-old former Seattle Symphony trombone player decided the forest he raised and tended since he was a teenager should never be developed. So he has gifted development rights to 176 acres of forestland on Whidbey Island, worth about $1.5 million, to the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, to keep it forest forever. Without the...


Grand old trees, many more than 10 stories high, sway and creak in the wind as a spring squall rakes this Whidbey Island forest.

It’s fresh and cool in here — just the way Harry Case, 81, has always liked it. And while not much is permanent in this life, Case has seen to it that this place will always be a forest.

Case has tended his little patch of the Northwest’s signature ecology since he bought this 176-acre forest for $840 in a 1946 tax-foreclosure sale when he was 18. “I have a Neanderthal sense of economy,” Case says. “I don’t believe in charging a nickel, ever. I have always paid cash. For houses. Cars. For these trees.”

Case recently donated a conservation easement on the forest to the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, permanently giving up future development rights to the property. Without it, the land could have been clear-cut and subdivided into 35 homesites. The land trust will oversee the conservation easement in the future to permanently protect the property from clear-cutting or development, no matter who owns it.

A trombonist for the Seattle Symphony before his retirement 17 years ago, Case has worked his forest all his life. He carefully thinned it, to give trees room to grow big. He high-graded some of the most valuable trees as they soared and swelled, taking 1 million board feet of timber over the years.

Case did much of the logging himself, alone, with Toby, his black draft horse with white feet. He used to load the logs with a winch, powered by his garden tractor.

Case owns stock in Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek, and is proud to have sustainably logged this property throughout his life. He can still selectively log the property to generate income, provided the logging is within the stewardship plan for the forest.

Sealing the deal with the land trust was the culmination of a lifelong goal, Case says. It all started with a clear-cut and a hike in the North Cascades when he was in his teens. “They were so wasteful back then, it was just butchered; the pieces they left behind were so big you couldn’t even climb over them,” Case says.

“I was so disgusted by that logging. I was going to get my own place so no one would ever log it like that. That was my goal, and I have never deviated from it.”

As he walks this property with his grandson Shawn Connor, 31, of Seattle, Case says softly, “My spirits pick up when we are out here.” Connor nods. “You don’t even notice any stumps,” Case continues. “They are out there, I know they are. But you don’t even see them.”

Except in one clear-cut acre and a half: an experiment. To see how much volume would result, Case harvested 40,000 board feet, worth $12,000 three years ago. The stand is already replanted, and the new trees are stretching taller, including a sequoia that towers above the rest — Connor’s baby, put in just for fun.

Together, they have planted all kinds of trees in the forest for beauty and novelty: white pine, ponderosa and even a great mass of rhodies that today tower overhead.

Case says he’s never figured what the forest would be worth if he clear-cut it all and developed it. “I never calculated it; I don’t think in those terms, and I don’t want to know,” he says. “I stopped progress here,” he says, landing a fist in his palm with a smack of satisfaction.

The land trust estimates the value of the development and timber rights at $1.5 million. Case pushes open the door of a cabin he and Connor built with their own hands, using logs on the place. His late mother’s purse, kept for sentimental reasons, hangs on the wall. The front door salvaged from her home is the cabin’s entrance.

A handmade map of his forest, drawn on a paper plate, sits on the music stand Case keeps in the cabin for practicing a trombone hung by the door.

No ordinary trombone, either — it’s the one he used to keep on the cab of his 1965 Ford pickup and blow with a garden hose snaked through the window, to announce his arrival in the ferry line or for anything else that required fanfare.

The map shows years of careful management of the land — which trees need to come out because of root rot, which stands have been recently cut, which have reached maturity and beyond.

Most are second- and third-growth Douglas fir, with some hemlock, a little alder and a smattering of cedar mixed in — including at least 500 cedars he has dug up wild over the years and transplanted here. He and Connor wire each new tree with a homemade cage to protect it from deer, and support it with a stake cut from a branch.

Because of the careful thinning over the years, the native understory has flourished in a lush array of huckleberry, salal, ferns and mosses.

There is no public road, but this is no dour forest primeval. Testifying to Case’s sense of humor are no-parking signs on the occasional tree trunk, salvaged from Seattle streets; a troll’s face, built from carved wood parts and staring out from a big fir; and a pair of sneakers set on a stump, big enough to fit a Sasquatch and mossy from decades in the weather. The sneakers, Case says, were intended to deter trespassers.

The forest has been his own personal mental-health program, a place to reflect, renew, read the paper in the cabin, or practice the trombone sitting on a chair in the sun.

It’s also been a way to connect with the next generation of his family. Connor, with degrees in environmental horticulture and urban forestry from the University of Washington, and a landscaper by trade, is the one Case has entrusted to care for the forest long after he is gone. His directions are simple:

“Forest forever,” Case says.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com