Barbara Snow was alone in her home by the lake on that January morning. She awoke at 5 o'clock to a terrifying scraping and hammering at the sides of her house. She opened the door to her carport to see what was going on. Tons of muddy, ice-cold water rushed into the house. In moments the water was chest high and she was struggling in the darkness to get out.
"I thought I was dying," Snow recalled last month. "I started to feel warm and at peace with everything. I began to see happy scenes from when I was a little girl.
"I thought to myself, I've always been late for everything, am I going to be on time for my death? For some reason this struck me as very funny, and I came to my senses."
Snow had been told in avalanche-survival courses to "swim with it, not against it." Swimming with the debris-filled torrent of Smith Creek, she managed to force herself onto the porch next door, to pound the door and scream. She and her neighbors, Joan and Loren Webb, huddled in the remains of the Webbs' wrecked house for three hours before being rescued, while the remains of Snow's house washed into Lake Whatcom.
It was Jan. 11, 1983. The landslide that destroyed homes along the shore of Lake Whatcom and sent some 80 acres of mud, logs and timber slash into the lake, was a sadly familiar story. Bad logging on private and state-owned land, poorly built logging roads and a record rainstorm created debris flows on Stewart Mountain, above the lake. Logs and slash flowed down Smith Creek to pile up behind a county bridge. The result, as documented by professional photographer Tore Ofteness of Bellingham, was appalling. The debris dam burst and sent water and logs roaring through the neighborhood.
The havoc energized the community to protect Lake Whatcom and the surrounding hillsides. The citizen-based groups Conservation Northwest and Whatcom Land Trust organized public pressure to have the land set aside in a timber and wildlife preserve.
Twenty-six years after the Smith Creek disaster, it's happening. Under a land transfer agreement between the county and the state Department of Natural Resources, the land becomes what may be the state's largest county park: 8,400 acres of timbered hills, within easy bicycle distance of Bellingham.
If you're running a county that has a hole the size of a few million dollars in its budget, it could seem like a foolish time to take on a huge new park. But County Executive Pete Kremen and most Whatcom County Council members see it as a way of preventing landslides and protecting Lake Whatcom — the drinking water source for some 90,000 people in and around Bellingham. The council voted in late November to find the $291,000 required to pay for the handoff of the 8,400 acres from DNR to Whatcom County. The payment — it works out to about $36 an acre — covers DNR's cost of adjusting boundaries and having the timber appraised so that it knows what it's giving away.
The land transfer calls up some Depression-era history. This was privately owned land — in 40-acre to 620-acre chunks — that was logged, mistreated, and disdained by its owners in the 1930s, then taken by Whatcom County for nonpayment of taxes. Counties all over the state were doing the same in those years. But counties were not in the timber business and could see no return in keeping the land, so the Washington Legislature let the DNR take over these lands and manage them for the counties, keep them in timber, sell the logs, and use the revenue to support such local necessities as schools and fire districts.
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