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Eight thousand acres of potential

Eight-thousand acres of potential

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The seventh-largest locally-managed park in the country just came into being in Bellingham’s backyard.

By Ian Ferguson
Photos courtesy of Cascade Mountain Runners

The landslide

In the steep hills above the eastern shore of Lake Whatcom in January 1983, an old abandoned logging road gave way during a heavy rainstorm. Mud and logs slid and piled behind a county bridge below, damming Smith Creek. The rain continued and the pressure mounted until the jam burst, releasing a torrent of water and debris that destroyed houses and swept 80 acres into Lake Whatcom, the source of drinking water for Bellingham and much of Whatcom County.

Efforts to clean up the debris resulted in flooding along Whatcom Creek, and the costs of the disaster topped $12 million (nearly $30 million in today’s currency). The Smith Creek landslide created waves of concern about the lake and its surroundings that still resonate, and those waves were the unifying force behind a recent land transfer known locally as “the reconveyance.” The act transferred ownership of 8,884 acres of land surrounding Lake Whatcom from the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to Whatcom County.

As a result, two huge swaths of what had been timberland on a 60-year harvest cycle are now the seventh largest locally managed park in the nation, an ecological gem of future old growth forest and a potential canvas for a world-class trail system.

 The land

If you’ve ever walked along the Hertz Trail on the eastern shore of Lake Whatcom, you’ve seen a hint of the new parkland’s allure. Sun-soaked in the afternoon, the trail follows three miles of placid shoreline under Douglas firs and western redcedar. As you walk along, cascading brooks tumble from the steep mountainside, offering glimpses upwards into lush, fern-lined ravines. Much of the new parkland lies up there, extending from the Hertz trail all the way to the summit of Stewart Mountain.

With trails scarce, few people wander uphill. Mitch Friedman, a conservation biologist and the executive director of Conservation Northwest, is one of those people. “There are some amazing, really big trees up there,” he said. “How they survived the logging cycles to the present day is a mystery, but based on their size they could be 400 years old. You have to see them up close to appreciate them.”

In 100 years, Friedman said, much of the park will be old growth. That’s good news for the marbled murrelet, an endangered species of seabird that nests in forests and flies to the coast to feed. Their population has been in decline for decades due to the loss of their preferred habitat. Marbled murrelets build their nests in the detritus that collects on the benches formed by large branches. “It takes a long time for a forest to develop the diverse canopy architecture required for those benches to grow and detritus to collect,” said Dave Wernzt, the science and conservation director for Conservation Northwest. “The combination of old trees and proximity to the coast makes the land around Lake Whatcom some of the last prime marbled murrelet habitat in the Puget Sound area.”

In addition to prime habitat, the land has several magnificent viewpoints. Dan Probst is the head of the Bellingham-based trail-running club Cascade Mountain Runners. He and other trail runners often run to the top of Stewart Mountain to take in the views. Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 3.16.44 PM“The top of Stewart has absolutely the most stunning views of Mt. Baker and the Twin Sisters you can find anywhere,” he said. “You’re looking directly across the valley at them.”

On the other side of Stewart, you can look out on Lake Whatcom and the coast, and in the reconveyance land across the lake, Lookout Mountain offers views to Bellingham Bay and the San Juan Islands. Stewart and Lookout are both riddled with valleys and folds rising to about 3,000 feet.

Ultimately, it was the land itself and the precious commodity below it that convinced decision makers of the need to protect it. Kathy Kershner was chair of the Whatcom County Council when the reconveyance passed. “When we took [Kershner] to see the land, she was really impressed,” Friedman said. “Landslides are the biggest threat to the water supply because they deliver a huge dose of phosphorous. They may occur anyway, but the biggest cause of landslides in that area is road cutting for timber harvests. The reconveyance puts an end to that.”

On the night the council voted on the reconveyance, Kershner came out in support despite the fact that many of her constituents disagreed with her. “We’ve heard from many groups that recreation is a prime industry to bring in, and I think this park will do that,” she said on the night of the vote. “I want to encourage the use of volunteers for trail building, and I don’t support any tax increases for this. It’s got to pay for itself. I want us to work together to make this thing the best that it can be.”

The landmark decision was passed March 12, 2013, but had been in the works for a long time before that.

 The transfer

The saga leading up to the reconveyance dates back to the depression era, when the logging companies that owned the land had stripped it past the point of productivity and couldn’t afford to pay property taxes. The land was foreclosed to the county, reflecting a statewide pattern. Since most counties lacked the resources to manage large swaths of timberland, the state stepped in to manage the land in the public trust – with a provision that the counties could eventually buy it back as long as it was turned into a public park.

The DNR-managed land went largely unnoticed until 1983. Landslides occur naturally in steep terrain, but the size and severity of the Smith Creek landslide was unprecedented for the area, and many blamed poor logging practices. In 1999, state legislators responded to a petition signed by 5,000 concerned citizens from around Lake Whatcom by passing Senate Bill 5536, which mandated a landscape plan limiting future timber harvests to sustainable zones.

In 2005, county executive Pete Kremen proposed buying the land back from the state. Political mountains were moved over the next few years, most notably to replace revenue from logging on the land that had gone to support the nearby Mount Baker School District. Kershner and Rand Jack of the Whatcom Land Trust brought the district into the discussion, and the parties eventually determined that $500,000 would be an appropriate sum to replace projected timber revenue. An anonymous donor contributed $250,000 and Whatcom Land Trust provided the remaining $250,000. The school board voted unanimously to accept the money, it was invested, and its dividends totaled more than $200,000 as of January 2014.

By the time the decision to purchase the land was put before the county council in March 2012, hundreds of mountain bikers, runners, hikers, equestrians, conservationists, business owners and water customers from across Whatcom County had spoken in favor of the reconveyance at public meetings and in written letters to council members. Local recreation groups Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition (WMBC) and Cascade Mountain Runners helped organize support, and representatives from both groups traveled to Olympia to speak to the board of natural resources.

Many others spoke against against the reconveyance citing budgetary issues, management concerns and concern for the local timber industry. On the night of the vote, 82 residents spoke publicly, with 53 in favor and 28 against the reconveyance (one speaker was in favor of developing the land for motorized use).

Now-former executive Kremen was one of the eight county council members deliberating. “This is a landmark decision that our children and our children’s children will thank us for,” Kremen said shortly before the council voted 6–2 in favor of purchasing the land for the sweet price of about $35 per acre. Along with Kershner and Kremen, council members Ken Mann, Carl Weimer and Sam Crawford voted for the reconveyance. After 10 months of paperwork, the deed was officially signed over on January 22, 2014.

 The plan

In addition to marbled murrelet, a far less endangered species frequents the type of habitat embodied by the park: the northwestern recreationist and all its subspecies, including the Cascade hilltop sprinter, the Whatcom two-wheeled shredder, the Western hoofer and the Coastal equestrian.

Now that the deed has been signed over, those recreation groups and others are meeting with the Whatcom County Parks and Recreation department to plan an ideal trail system through the new parkland. “It will be a collaborative effort,” Mike McFarlane, director of the county parks department said. “Hopefully on the far end we’ll have a trail plan that everyone is satisfied with.”

McFarlane knows satisfying everyone will be an uphill battle. “It could be a lengthy process. There’s a huge desire to protect the watershed, a lot of people wondering who will manage the park and with what resources, and there are many different interests involved,” he said. But he added that all the groups at the table seem to have similar goals: a variety of trails that don’t degrade the land and that will allow users of all types to enjoy the wild setting.

While much about the future park is still unknown, planners have agreed that the park will be restricted to non-motorized use. There will likely be trails for different activities and there will probably be a few remote backcountry campsites, similar to the campsites on Pine Lake in the nearby Chuckanut Mountains. Planners have put forth estimates of 50 to 55 miles of trails, but it’s too early to be more definitive. Restoring damage done by logging roads may also be part of the plan.

All user groups and the parks department agree that they want to see connectivity between trails in the new parkland and nearby trail networks. Both McFarlane and Probst gave the example of the Pacific Northwest Trail, which runs from the Olympic Range to Glacier National Park in Montana and passes the south side of Lake Whatcom. The trail network on nearby Galbraith Mountain has been a part of the discussion. So has a system of trails leading all the way to the summit of Mt. Baker.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 3.19.47 PMProbst is in the midst of planning an ultra-marathon that would run from Bellingham Bay to the summit of Mt. Baker, after successfully completing the run himself last summer. Citing the global popularity of ultra-marathons, Probst said he thinks the reconveyance land provides a corridor for a race that would gain international acclaim. “We have a growing ultra-running community that would love to see long loops of single-track with varied terrain and views,” he said.

He added that although runners are happy to share single-track trails with mountain bikers, the park’s size should allow room for some user-specific trails. Local mountain bikers seem to agree. “In a perfect world, the majority of trails would be multi-use with a percentage being user-specific trails that are appropriate for each of the various user groups,” said Eric Brown, trail director for WMBC. “We’ve shown those can be very successful on Galbraith and in other areas, and they enhance the user experience while reducing user conflict.”

Mountain bikers hope to mix some downhill, directional trails into the plan, along with the same connective trails everyone else wants to see. “We’re hoping to see connectivity from downtown, over to Galbraith and then to the reconveyance land on Lookout Mountain,” WMBC president Matt Durand said. “To be able to link those areas up would be a great thing.”

Building 50 miles of trails can be pricey, but it doesn’t have to be. An army of dedicated trail builders affiliated with WMBC, Cascade Runners and many other groups stand ready to volunteer their labor and expertise.  “We’ve had commitments from trail building groups throughout the county to assist in not only building the trails, but in stewardship as well,” McFarlane said. “They’ve helped build and maintain many of the trails currently in the parks system, and I’d expect that relationship to continue.”

The local trail building community’s willingness to get involved has been a main point of support from the outset, Brown said. “The various user groups contribute thousands of hours to trail work each season and can greatly reduce the infrastructure build out and ongoing maintenance,” Brown said. “When you have trails that are designed and built by the folks who will utilize them, you also get huge buy-in and a real sense of ownership from those users.”

Throughout the planning process, watershed quality and habitat conservation will be the two overarching issues. Roads and parking lots are the most destructive components of most parks, but in this case they are a non-issue because they’re already in place in existing parks that adjoin the new land: Lookout Mountain Preserve on the west side of the lake and Lake Whatcom Park on the east. These parks will become the entrance points to the new trail systems. The goal will be to place new trails and other infrastructure in areas that are not highly sensitive in terms of habitat and erosion, McFarlane said.

If habitat and watershed protection are the main goals, recreation isn’t far behind. Since people are usually more willing to protect what they can see and enjoy, sustainable outdoor recreation can coexist and even support conservation efforts. Perhaps this is why conservationists are so excited about the recreational opportunities the park will afford.

“We love the idea of an accessible park – that people can get on a bus and be in a large wilderness area in a matter of minutes,” said Natalie Whitman, development associate for Whatcom Land Trust.

Friedman echoed that sentiment.

“It feels wrong and indulgent to drive an hour and a half to go for a hike,” he said. “We have an opportunity to provide world-class recreation right in our backyard, to provide a connection to nature and at the same time advance watershed and habitat protection in a meaningful way.”

Striking a perfect balance between conservation and recreation won’t be easy, but so far, everyone seems to want the same thing.

“The two go hand in hand,” Probst said. “It takes a community to plan a great trail system.”

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