KHLT honors Toby Tyler for loving the land

To hear Richard Wilson “Toby” Tyler tell it, he hasn’t done anything award-worthy. 

The Kachemak Heritage Land Trust disagrees. 

Calling him a “prolific local artist, gardener supreme, scourge of invasive species and champion of the natural world,” the trust’s board presented Tyler with its 2015 “Land at Heart” award at the KHLT annual auction on Oct. 17. The award honors a local person for his or her distinguished contribution to conservation on the Kenai Peninsula. 

Tyler easily fits the description: a founding member of the land trust, he served as its secretary for 15 years. He made substantial monetary donations to the trust and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies that allowed the center to finance a new building. In 1994, he also became one of the first people in Homer to grant the trust a conservation easement on his property, and later established a life estate for it. 

As a result of those measures, when Tyler dies, his 20 acres of land will go to the trust and no one will be able to develop on the property beyond the building envelope, even if the trust sells it.

The property is on Paradise Place and Tyler says the street name is no misnomer. 

When a film crew came to Homer to make a promotional video for Alaska decades ago, he remembers that they filmed right along his fence.

Those advertisers were right on target, Tyler says. The land was what attracted him to Alaska — an art school graduate and grade school teacher “tired of California,” he came to Alaska in 1953 after a friend who was stationed in Kodiak during World War II told him he would love it here. Sixty-two years later at 88 years old, he hasn’t left. 

On Saturday night, his property donation earned him a standing ovation. But it wasn’t all he was praised for. 

In fact, the period for speeches following the award ceremony had to be extended half a dozen times as more and more people got up to attempt to express their appreciation for Tyler.

“Let me count the ways, if I can count that far,” said Tyler’s long-time friend and KHLT co-founder Daisy Lee Bitter. “It isn’t just the Land Trust. It’s Coastal Studies, it’s art, it’s everything you can think of.”

In fact, many people in Homer have probably heard Tyler’s name most often in connection with the arts. He’s had shows in nearly every gallery in town — including one open at Ptarmigan Arts now — and is a member of the Homer Council on the Arts.

His life has been devoted equally to nature and to art. But as Tyler explains, they aren’t distinct passions; they fuel one another. When he lived above an art gallery back in California, he says he would use painting as an excuse to go for long hikes, picking wild grasses that he placed in glass bottles in the gallery and calling it “the weed bar.” His first project in Alaska was making a native plant guide illustrated with his depictions of local flora.

The paintings that decorate the walls of Tyler’s room at the Friendship Terrace senior center, where he’s lived since suffering a stroke last winter, all portray the peaks he’s climbed around Alaska. He still has a keen memory for the names of mountains and the friends he hiked them with.

Tyler says he gets upset when he hears about people destroying land, like when vandals drove ATVs over a new trail on the Effler property in June. He thinks the Land Trust and Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies are doing great work, but need more support.

“Conservation’s going very well but there are still some places that haven’t been conserved that should and we’ve got to keep going,” he says. “I hope the Land Trust goes on for many more years working in this area, and the Center for Coastal Studies too, and that similar organizations get started.”

There are still lots of things Tyler wants to do that he hasn’t tried yet. He says he hopes to spend more time in a boat and try out fishing, which he hasn’t explored much. He also has an active social life — in his room on Monday, he remarked that he was surprised not to have had several visitors by mid-afternoon. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, he still gets together with old hiking buddies.

Once a week, his friend and neighbor, Mary Griswold, takes him out to his property to walk around. But Tyler says that’s not quite enough. He misses painting and biking along the trails, the parties he used to host in his garden.

“It gets frustrating to just go up there and have to come back again,” he says. “I want to live there, period.”

For Tyler, that’s what everything comes down to — the land.

Why did he decide to donate his?

“It had a beautiful view and I wanted people to be able to enjoy it,” he says.