Asha Lela feels that she was born into the wrong time period. “I always wanted to be a pioneer,” says the woman who unwittingly became just that. Lela was a driving force behind a movement to permanently preserve 1,000 acres in Washington state’s San Juan Islands, a tract that President Obama designated as a national monument on March 25, 2013.
After graduating from Denison with an economics degree, Lela moved to the West Coast, living in Berkeley and working at a bank in San Francisco. “When I started having kids in the 1970s,” she says, “I knew I didn’t want to be in the corporate world.”
When her children were toddlers, Lela divorced. Both ethically and spiritually invested in the back-to-the-land movement, she relocated to Lopez Island with her children, living the life of a modern-day pioneer. She dwelled in the woods with no running water and no electricity for three years before purchasing a five-acre parcel. She designed and built a cabin and an octagon house overlooking the Juan de Fuca Strait.
In the 1980s, while Lela was setting up her household, developers also were setting up to clear-cut an ocean-view park and put in an RV court across the street from her. “I had a six-year battle saving that park,” she says. “It was the beginning of my land conservation work. When you live on an island, you’re limited as to where you can go. I knew we needed to save as much land as we could.”
Motivated by a deep belief that humans need to speak for nature, Lela joined a preservation group called the Friends of Chadwick and created the Islanders for the San Juan Islands National Conservation Area. Keeping the long view in mind, Lela led the friends in identifying 500 acres of island land for conservation, which eventually were purchased and protected by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Another 500 acres in the San Juan Islands, including three historic lighthouses, were added to the parcel. Lela and the groups petitioned, lobbied Congress, and worked toward federal legislation to protect the land. The BLM sites recently became the San Juan Islands National Monument.
Lela still lives in the octagon house she built with her own hands and a lot of help from friends, including her children, who have returned to live on Lopez Island with their children. In the summers, Lela relocates to her “comfort camping” spot, a piece of land she owns and where she gardens, while renting out the cabin and octagon house—Ravens Rock Lodging. “I don’t have a lot of money,” says Lela. “I knew what I was building then would be my legacy. I hope it lasts at least 100 years.”
One thing is certain. Whether or not the octagon house survives, the San Juan Islands National Monument will be protected, at a minimum, for the next seven generations—and that is a powerful legacy.
“I had not a clue when I started in this conservation work,” says Lela. “If you are passionate about something, you can make a difference on the national level, even if you are an ordinary citizen.”