By Oliver Lazenby
In the past 30 years, Galbraith Mountain has gone from a little-used patch of forest where dirt bikers twisted throttles through overgrown trails, to a mountain bike paradise that’s increasingly cherished by runners and hikers as well.
Changes in ownership and land use agreements and countless hours of volunteer trail work transformed the informally used private timberland. Galbraith’s status as a mountain bike destination isn’t due to its location, on a lumpy green hill southeast of Bellingham, so much as the work of volunteer trail builders and the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition (WMBC), a nonprofit advocacy group. And all their work was done without assurance of future access; a change in ownership could have closed the mountain permanently.
The WMBC forged a strong relationship with the current and past owners of the 2,182-acre property, which allowed for trail access, at least on a temporary basis. But WMBC’s goal was to secure permanent access.
Meanwhile, the city of Bellingham kept inching closer to Galbraith Mountain. Homes popped up on its flanks and soaring timber prices led to more logging activity in recent years, opening up million dollar views of Bellingham Bay and the San Juan Islands.
To some, securing access to Galbraith seemed like a race against time.
II. Happy Hour
That race ended this summer – recreation won. The city of Bellingham and Whatcom Land Trust pitched in to purchase recreation and conservation easements from the mountain’s current owner, Galbraith Tree Farm LLC. Those easements will protect about 65 miles of mostly multi-use trails and allow for future trail creation and maintenance on the tree farm. Logging will continue on the mountain.
“The idea that this private timberland is going to be protected is pretty unique. You’re never going to have McMansions up on the mountain,” said Eric Brown, WMBC trail director. “I frankly believe it would have just been a matter of time before development started creeping up that hill.”
The city of Bellingham contributed $2.75 million and Whatcom Land Trust added $250,000, for a total of $3 million to purchase the easements. The organizations, along with Galbraith Tree Farm LLC and the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition, are working on a management plan for the property.
III. Cedar Dust
The city of Bellingham, WMBC and Whatcom Land Trust have been working toward such a deal for more than a decade, and came close to an agreement several times.
For Brown, permanent access to Galbraith started to seem possible in about 2011, after Polygon Financial Partners took over the mountain when Trillium Corporation ceded the property in lieu of foreclosure, he said.
Polygon was open to selling recreational easements but the groups couldn’t come to an agreement, Brown said.
“Ultimately they were concerned with liability,” he said. “We were about a month away from that deal happening and we were so close and then it fell on the floor. We were like, now what?”
Rich Bowers, executive director of Whatcom Land Trust, pointed out that land conservation projects tend to take many years. The land trust has been involved in conserving and purchasing properties throughout the county.
“If you look at environmental projects, the average time to get something accomplished on a permanent basis is probably 6-8 years,” Bowers said. “It’s a marathon and not a sprint.”
A deal seemed possible once again when Rob Janicki, who managed logging operations on Galbraith, expressed interest in buying the property in 2016, Brown said. Janicki, a mountain biker himself, has always worked to allow recreation on the mountain.
“He bought it with the intention of a deal happening,” Brown said.
Galbraith Tree Farm LLC, founded by Janicki, bought the bulk of the property in June 2017. Still, reaching a deal wasn’t easy.
“There were some ups and downs and times when I thought this deal was going to fall through, even as recently as a couple of weeks ago we thought the deal was dead,” Brown said in late July, days after the partners announced the agreement.
Brown and Bowers didn’t elaborate much on the sticking points, saying they no longer matter.
“Ultimately they came together on the terms. It was the deal we were hoping to get all along,” Brown said.
We’ve been getting private grants but we haven’t been able to secure any public grants and that’s going to be a game changer for us.
The new deal with the city will have some impacts for the trail system. WMBC will likely be able to host events on the mountain: Brown envisions everything from industry demo events to bike and running races.
More importantly, WMBC will be eligible for government grants – something it couldn’t get without permanent trail access.
“We’ve been getting private grants but we haven’t been able to secure any public grants and that’s going to be a game changer for us,” Brown said.
It also likely means more permitting and bureaucracy for work on the mountain.
“I think we’ll have to do a few more things like permitting for bridges or bigger projects, but that’s ok. We’ll have an annual plan, we’ll get those projects permitted 3-6 months before they start and we’ll get on it.”
In his years riding on Galbraith, Brown has seen another, more recent change. More and more kids are riding the mountain. Brown frequently sees packs of kids as young as 12 out for a ride, and Brown spends more and more time on the trails with his daughter.
That makes it easier to take a long-term view of the local trails, and that view now includes permanent access to the trails WMBC has worked so hard on for the last 32 years.
“With the ever-increasing popularity of our trails, trail users and the growth in Bellingham, securing access to Galbraith helps maintain this jewel of Whatcom County for all residents forever,” he said.