News & Events

Sarah and Owen Fairbank: The Heart and Soul of Jefferson Land Trust

Author: Lilly Schneider | 02/14/23

Photo of Owen and Sarah Fairbank wearing flower crowns

Our TogetherFest fundraising event was held virtually on Zoom during the pandemic and it was Sarah Fairbank’s idea to encourage guests to create and wear flower or plant crowns.

Jefferson Land Trust has relied on the generosity, support, and skills of hundreds of dedicated volunteers since our beginnings as a grassroots, community-powered organization more than three decades ago. This Valentine’s Day, as we celebrate the amazing contributions of all our volunteers, we’re honored to pay special tribute to two who have served the Land Trust and our community for the last 20 years: Sarah and Owen Fairbank.

Photo of Owen in a red coat riding a bicycle in the 2004 Uptown Parade

In the 2004 Port Townsend Uptown Parade, Owen wore a bright red coat and rode a bicycle as the Land Trust’s parade entry.

Since 2003, Sarah and Owen have dedicated countless hours, deep skill, and their whole hearts to the shared work of protecting the places that matter most in Jefferson County. As volunteers and generous supporters, they’ve guided the organization as it has grown — and inspired all of us with their warm and giving spirits.

Sarah and Owen have always been drawn to taking care of the land, the water, and the animals. They both grew up in kinship with the outdoors; Owen went to high school on a dairy farm in Vermont, and Sarah recalls gardening, birdwatching, and a particular interest in swamps from an early age. They’ve spent much of their lives outside — farming, exploring, working, observing, gardening, and teaching their three children, now grown, about the wonders of the natural world around their homes, first in New Mexico and then in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

While living in Oregon, Sarah and Owen took land conservation and restoration into their own hands — literally and figuratively. Through a collaboration with both the state and federal Departments of Fish and Wildlife as well as state and federal conservation districts, the Fairbanks took on the work of restoring five acres of wetlands around a stream on their 15-acre property, including upland forest and two vernal pools (in the Willamette Valley, such pools are important nesting, feeding, and breeding sites for migratory waterfowl). They monitored fish and birds, and Sarah planted hundreds of native plants, which they cared for and monitored for more than a decade.

Photo of a man using a laptop in a field.

Talk about dedication, Owen is seen here working on a laptop in a field in Chimacum.

“Saving those wetlands, and seeing the effect of that on the land firsthand, that’s what made it important for me to volunteer for the Land Trust later on,” Sarah says.

In 2003, after Owen retired and closed the shop where he repaired foreign cars, Owen and Sarah moved up to Port Townsend, drawn to the Olympic Peninsula’s water and mountains. It wasn’t long before they discovered the Land Trust — then a much smaller organization run mostly by volunteers.

“It’s very fun being part of a team,” Owen says. “The Land Trust is a good fit for our interests and for our long-term concern about the future. There are many good causes I could imagine being involved in, but it’s the people, the culture of collaboration and consensus, and the values here that I want to support.”

Sarah adds, “He loves being with people. It’s been almost like a second career for him. It was a really good retirement strategy, looking back on it.” She continues, “For me, my involvement with the Land Trust was personal. I wanted to do something that helps the world, and be able to utilize my skill set to do it.”

Together, they’ve participated in, and shaped, nearly every corner of the organization.

Photo of Owen Fairbank and Blaise Sullivan on rocky beach

Owen and the Land Trust’s Blaise Sullivan on the beach during a site visit to the Wright property, which was recently donated to the Land Trust.

“It’s amazed me, over the years, to see that they’ve been involved in every sort of project that we have,” says Conservation Coordinator Blaise Sullivan. “Because they’ve been a part of the Land Trust for so long, they have the ability to see the importance of every single aspect of the work we do and are dedicated to the entirety of our organization.”

From administrative work in the office to advising on projects, from chairing committees to making phone calls to donors, from handling complex real estate transactions to training and coordinating fellow volunteers, from fundraising and event planning to trail clearing and a whole lot more — the list of roles that Sarah and Owen have not played at Jefferson Land Trust would certainly be much shorter than a list of those they have.

“I think what’s really meaningful and exciting about volunteering at the Land Trust is the types of people that come forward, and the people you get to know,” Sarah says. “The enthusiasm, the information, the work they’ve done in their lives, their willingness to give and their willingness to cooperate. I’ve never been part of a group before that works together so well.”

“I really enjoy creative problem-solving, and the pleasures of working together with people,” Owen says. “On a challenging project, how can we meet everybody’s needs? It’s fun to figure that out.”

Photo of group of people standing near a forest.

2015 tour of Chimacum Ridge. Left to Right: Sarah Spaeth, Owen Faribank, Congressman Derek Kilmer, Richard Tucker, County Commissioner Kate Dean, and Nan Evans.

Owen served on the Land Trust’s Board of Directors for eight years, including three years as Board President. He’s played a key role in our regular conservation easement monitoring, visiting every property the Land Trust has protected to ensure land is being cared for according to the terms of the easement. He’s also been deeply involved in moving forward dozens of landmark protection projects such as Chimacum Ridge, Quimper Wildlife Corridor, Tamanowas Rock, and many others. For many years, Owen served as Chair of the Conservation Projects Committee, and is still active on the committee today. He feels it’s important to get out and walk in the places we’re trying to protect — “so it’s more than just a dot on the map” — and says he takes a particular joy in connecting with landowners and hearing their stories of the land.

“Owen’s become our right-hand person for anything related to projects, and continues to be hugely influential and helpful in all of our land protection projects,” says Director of Conservation and Strategic Partnerships Sarah Spaeth. “Thinking creatively about them, documenting them, helping negotiate with landowners, stewardship, research — all sorts of things.” She continues, “Both he and Sarah are so good at including everyone’s views and drawing people in. They’ve been integral to this organization.”

Photo of Owen Fairbank and three Land Trust staff members on trail at Chai yahk wh Preserve

Right to Left: Owen with Carrie Clendaniel, Blaise Sullivan, and Erik Kingfisher exploring the wetlands at Chai yahk wh Preserve on Marrowstone Island.

“It’s beyond inspirational that these two people choose to spend so much of their time, energy, and resources doing this work — supporting this organization and all of us here on a personal level,” says Preserve Manager Carrie Clendaniel.

Owen and Sarah have been a big part of helping the Land Trust build a supportive and sincere community where employees, volunteers, partners, landowners, students, families, farmers, newcomers, and all who care for the natural world are encouraged to participate in the good work of protecting our shared lands by bringing their own ideas, personalities, values, and skills to the table.

Of his experience with Owen and Sarah, Executive Director Richard Tucker says, “When I first came to the Land Trust eight years ago, I was new to the organization and to the community. Owen and Sarah immediately took me under their wing and befriended me — I felt welcomed. Over the years I’ve grown to love them like family. I can’t begin to explain how much their friendship and support has meant to me.”

“Owen and Sarah get to know every staff member, every volunteer,” says Development Manager Sarah Zablocki-Axling. “They find so much joy in the interconnection between people.”

Together, the Fairbanks have welcomed countless new friends into the Land Trust’s wide circle of supporters and helped to weave the connections and partnerships that are so vital to our work. They’ve even taken the initiative to invite community members interested in learning more about the Land Trust to gatherings at their home. And of course, no one can be in their orbit for long without being treated to some of Sarah’s legendary baking and Owen’s equally legendary beaming smile.

Photo of a group of people gathered on a lawn.

Left to Right: Doug Mason, Sarah Fairbank, and Joyce Wilkerson gathering at the Land Trust’s 30th Anniversary Celebration in 2019.

They’ve made fond memories over the years, including at the Land Trust’s signature fundraising gala, now called “LandFest” and held annually at Finnriver Farm & Cidery. Back when it started, in 2003, it was called “RainFest,” and Sarah describes it as an “organic, down-home happening” out at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds.

Back then, the Land Trust had only a few part-time staff members, so it was up to spirited volunteers like Sarah and Owen, along with others, to plan and execute the event, handling everything from recruiting and inviting guests to seating, setup, and decoration. One year, Sarah fondly recalls, the tables were plywood placed on large trash cans, and at the end of the evening, guests simply removed the tabletops and scraped their leftovers in. Another year, a feverish bidding war erupted over a stray cabbage. Rainfest was known, according to Owen, as “the best party in town.”

Photo of Owen hugging a Douglas fir tree.

Owen shows his appreciation for one of the oldest trees in the Quimper Wildlife Corridor, on a property he and Sarah helped to protect forever.

Another watershed Land Trust moment Sarah and Owen helped make possible was the complicated process of becoming officially accredited by the Land Trust Alliance. Sarah recalls “scanning, scanning, scanning, scanning…scanning.” When asked what she was scanning, she promptly replies, “Everything. All the paperwork we had up until that point.”

Owen adds, “It was a big push and a large expense, but it expedited the evolution of the organization.”

Over the last two decades, Sarah and Owen have been an important part of helping the Land Trust rise to meet the urgent need to protect the land, water, and wild spaces that sustain and nourish us all. Our staff, as well as our wide circle of supporters, partners, neighbors, and friends, has grown. We’ve broadened our impact by moving in ambitious new directions, like expanding our work to protect farms and working lands, and made enormous strides on ongoing protection projects like the preservation of the Quimper Wildlife Corridor. As Sarah puts it, “We’ve watched the organization grow up.”

Along the way, Sarah and Owen have become more than volunteers. They’ve become friends, advisors, leaders, and trusted guides in this work.

“They’re our truth north,” says Director of Philanthropy Kate Godman. “If there’s ever a question about which direction to go, we can always turn to them. They’re also thinking deeply and strategically about the work, all the time. They’re always challenging us to do the best we can.”

Photo of Sarah Fairbank on Loop Trail at Valley View Forest.

Sarah Fairbank on the Loop Trail at Valley View Forest just after it opened in fall 2018.

Among all the projects they have helped advance, the Quimper Wildlife Corridor holds a special place in their hearts. Sarah says, “As I’m seeing the town start to fill in around the corridor, knowing that these trails are so accessible to so many people, and meeting people out there with these big grins on their faces, it seems it would be such a hardship to have an area like this not be available to people anymore. It’s such a precious resource to so many.”

“The 39th Street trail is my favorite way out of town, on foot or on bicycle,” says Owen. “I had a memorable experience coming home from a Land Trust meeting one spring evening bicycling down the trail, going from one frog population to another, their calls growing louder and louder, then fading, then growing louder again. The frogs, the forest, and the dark.”

Because this connected swatch of wetlands, meadows, and other wildlife habitat was originally plotted for dense urban development, the Land Trust has had to work to protect it parcel by parcel over the last nearly 30 years. When timing and funding don’t align, the Land Trust can’t always make the leap to purchase every parcel — leaving this precious land vulnerable to the increasing pressures of development.

Owen and Sarah chose a creative and generous solution: when these parcels came up for sale, they’ve acted as angel buyers, quietly purchasing parcels in the corridor and donating them to the Land Trust. In many instances, they held onto these “puzzle pieces” until such time as a donation could serve as a needed match for government grants. In this way, the two of them have helped protect many precious pieces of the Quimper Wildlife Corridor, including a “legacy property,” with an incredible mother tree estimated to be between 500 and 600 years old, that the Land Trust had been hoping to protect for decades.

Photo of a group of people in the forest looking at a trail map.

In 2022, Sarah (in the striped shirt) and Owen led a Monthly Meander tour in the Quimper Wildlife Corridor, sharing their knowledge of nature and their passion for this special place.

This past year found Owen and Sarah tabling for the Land Trust at events, leading guided walks through the Quimper Wildlife Corridor for our Monthly Meanders program, serving on various committees, attending staff meetings, helping out at work parties on our preserves, lending advice to 14 staff members, getting out on the land to meet landowners and explore possible projects, planning and assisting with events, lending a hand when the Land Trust vehicles needed some loving attention, supplying the staff and volunteers with delicious baked goods…and so much more.

“How do you put into words what these people mean to me, and to the organization?” muses Stewardship Director Erik Kingfisher. “It goes without saying they’ve made the Land Trust better than it would’ve been otherwise. I trust them deeply. And I’m a better person for the time I’ve spent with them.”

Please join us all in sharing heartfelt thanks to Sarah and Owen for their outstanding gift of service to Jefferson Land Trust and our community.

Want to Get Involved as a Volunteer?

The success of our work depends on the generous contributions of time, talent, and treasure by hundreds of members of our community each year. If you’re inspired to dig in and make a difference, please check out our volunteer page and tell us a little about your interest and skills. We can’t wait to meet you!

Photo of a group of people on top of Chimacum Ridge.

Owen on a site visit to Chimacum Ridge with the 2015 Board of Directors.