The fight to create Washington's biggest park

In Whatcom County, the park that would be Washington's biggest, is inching closer to reality. Even as local politicians arm wrestle over its future.

Crosscut archive image.

Some of the damage from the 1983 Smith Creek landslide at Lake Whatcom.

In Whatcom County, the park that would be Washington's biggest, is inching closer to reality. Even as local politicians arm wrestle over its future.

In the steep and deep hill country east of Bellingham, about 20 raven miles from the Canadian border, you can see the makings of a giant public park. It may, in fact, become the largest locally-governed park in the state. It will be a close vote, but it looks as though Whatcom County Council will take near-final steps toward creating the new park in the watershed of Lake Whatcom, within a few days.

Eight thousand seven hundred acres of timberland will be transferred — or not — from the state Department of Natural Resources to Whatcom County Parks and Recreation, as a wildland park. Human use would be limited to hiking, bicycling, and primitive camping. 

The proposed park straddles Lake Whatcom in two huge chunks, one on the west side near the community of Sudden Valley; the other on the east, off Northshore Road near the entrance to the existing Lake Whatcom Shoreline trail. It would be nearly three times the size of King County’s Cougar Wildland Park near Issaquah. In Seattle terms, that’s like 17 Discovery Parks, 45 Washington Arboretums, or 27 Magnuson Parks.

The idea for such a preposterous park has been around for 30 years or so, ever since the Smith Creek landslide wiped out homes and carried some 80 acres of trees and stumps into Lake Whatcom, in 1983. The slide originated at a logging site high in the hills, involving badly built logging roads that washed out during a record-setting rain storm. (Pictured at the right, one small piece of the disaster as chronicled by noted Bellingham photographer Tore Ofteness).

By the mid-90’s the Whatcom Land Trust and the forest preservation group Conservation Northwest were organizing support for a new county preserve, off-limits to commercial logging. It caught the imagination of hundreds of preservation minded-citizens, and County Executive Pete Kremen. Lake Whatcom Park became a prize project for Kremen. It still is, although the former County Executive left the top office last year to become one of seven County Council members.

A former state legislator and former radio-TV news personality, Kremen is seldom without something to say about the proposed park. “It’s something like the people who had the foresight to create Central Park in New York, only much more grand,” he told Crosscut the other day. “Not only is it a treasure for our future generations, it’s part of saving the lake.”

Saving the lake has occupied Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham to the exclusion of more congenial issues, for years. In 2008, the Washington Department of Ecology announced that Lake Whatcom — Bellingham’s water supply — had become an “impaired body of water,” suffering an intolerable load of phosphorous and other nutrients. Ecology sent the county and city an unprecedented directive: Cut the “effective acreage of development” in the watershed by 74 percent. That’s like rolling back history to some point near the time of Seattle's World’s Fair; well before the arrival of most of the thousands whose homes now crowd the lakeshore.

Since the early 20th century, the 5000-acre lake has beckoned one housing developer after another. About 6,500 homes surround the lake, with swimming beaches and boat launches. More than 90,000 drink from it, in Bellingham and its nearby service areas.

Phosphorous and other nutrients drain from lawns and graded land, feeding algae in the lake. Larger algae blooms require extra chlorination to make the water safe for drinking. That process increases trihalomethanes, byproducts that have been linked to cancer. The city has kept water quality well above federal standards, but the algae so messed-up delivery systems that water was rationed briefly in two successive summers.

Ecology can’t tell the city or county to tear down the houses, says Katie Skipper, Communications Manager for Ecology in the north end of the state, “but they’ll have to put the watershed in such a condition that the landscape acts as though 74 percent of the existing development wasn’t there.”

Many park proponents view the Ecology findings as a sort of “Aha!” that advances the argument in favor of the proposed transfer.  Councilmember Kremen argues that by taking control of 8700 acres of the Whatcom watershed in a park, stopping the removal of trees, canceling proposed logging roads and closing most of those that exist, Whatcom County can cut important amounts of phosphorous from washing into the lake, and move toward meeting Ecology’s requirements.

The primary author of those requirements disagrees. Steve Hood, the Department of Ecology environmental engineer whose findings led to the directive to roll back development, says the transfer from state to county management won’t matter a lot.

“We may get some improvement from stopping the logging roads,” Hood told Crosscut,  “but not enough to make much difference in water quality.”  He says county officials need to concentrate instead on limiting the effect of lakeshore subdivisions and auto roads, if they hope to meet the standards his agency has set. Hoping to gain phosphorous-reduction points by creating the new park is unrealistic, he says. “The park is a fine thing to do; Pete should be very proud of it. I just wish he’d quit trying to sell it as a water quality decision.”

The proposed park was moving toward approval last fall, when it struck a financial/political logjam. With the transfer agreement all but completed  (it’s known as a reconveyance in the language of land specialists) a web of uneasiness grew around the value of trees that won’t be cut, and revenue that the Mt. Baker School District won’t receive as a result.

The trees are managed as part of DNR’s two million-acre state forest, logged gradually for the benefit of the universities, local schools, and fire and water districts. Much of the acreage that would be transferred is in the largely rural Mt. Baker School District, which survives on a thin property tax base. The school superintendent persuaded the state Board of Natural Resources — a little known authority governing the disposition of DNR property — that the schools needed protection from loss of revenue they would suffer if the trees were to be preserved. BNR assured Mt. Baker that it would not allow the transfer until the school district’s needs are satisfied. But Whatcom County officials said the county couldn’t afford to meet the school district’s demands. 

In February, the Whatcom Land Trust and an anonymous donor came to the rescue. They agreed to pay the school district half a million dollars to make up for trees not sold because of the proposed park. The school district changed its position in a hurry, from opponent to cheerleader.

The reconveyance and the big park are possible because of some hardscrabble history of the 1930s. The timberland that now looks to be mile after seamless mile of trees was once made up of small patches, 40 to 620 acres, owned by individual tree farmers or small logging companies. By the time of the Great Depression, most the parcels had been logged. Local taxes went unpaid. Timber patch by timber patch, the county took title to the land as payment for back taxes. Most timber counties in Washington did the same thing. 

County governments were not thrilled at managing cutover timber tracts and not very good at it. They asked the state to take charge. The legislature directed the Department of Natural Resources to manage the acreages as commercial timberland, with revenue going to local governments.

Seventy-five years later, those forlorn, orphaned patches now flaunt superb stands of hemlock and Douglas fir, prime material for two-by-fours and roof beams. If the trees remain with DNR, that agency will sell them, as its charter requires, on behalf of the schools and other local districts. The logging would be managed with an extra layer of restraint, under the terms of the Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan, a ten-year-old agreement between Whatcom County, DNR, and a local water district. Still, the trees would be cut. That means miles of logging roads. Park proponents maintain that only the absence of such roads, the presence of a thick forest canopy and live tree roots in the ground, can prevent a replay of the Smith Creek slide of 1983 and similar, less documented disasters.

Councilmember Sam Crawford has doubts about the proposed park’s contribution to saving the lake from pollution.  But he says there are other good reasons to vote for it. A conservative Republican who defies most stereotypes, Crawford originally opposed the land transfer but has come to support it.

“Not because I think it will make any serious difference in the condition of the lake,” he told Crosscut, “but because it’s a chance to establish a great park for not much money. It’s already in public hands, the state pays no property tax on it, so we might as well own it and gain the benefits of a park.” 

The immediate price of taking over — mostly for paying DNR to survey the land and appraise the value of the trees — pencils out to less than $30 an acre. By contrast, the City of Bellingham agreed recently to pay $100,000 an acre for wooded parkland on its southern boundary, after a would-be developer went bankrupt. 

That cuts no ice with Councilmember Barbara Brenner, one of the most outspoken opponents of the proposed new park and the 50 miles of new hiking and mountain biking trails the County Parks Department envisions. 

“The last thing I want to see is more people invited into our woods and mountains,” she said a few days ago.  “If this is a park, we’ll be advertising it, we’ll be drawing more people into the area, and we’ll have to pay for patrolling and policing it. We’ll be liable if anyone gets hurt. The way it is now people can use it but we’re not responsible for it.”

Brenner and Councilmember Bill Knudsen remain committed opponents of the new park. Council Chair Kathy Kershner says she sees little benefit in shifting the land from state to county management, but says she’s not certain how she’ll vote. Democrats Kremen, Ken Mann, and Carl Weimer support the reconveyance. Their votes along with Crawford’s would approve the new park, possibly by a one-vote margin — not enough to override a possible veto by Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, elected to the top county office only last fall.

A Republican and former mayor of Lynden, Louws criticized the proposal during his campaign last summer. But in a recent interview, he wouldn’t say whether he’d approve or veto it. He says the positive aspect is that it puts a large block of public land in local control.

“But the challenge is that it puts a large block of public land in local control. If there’s a slide we have to take care of it. The privilege of ownership comes with responsibility. Are we going to take that responsibility, now in the hands of six million people, and put it in the hands of 200 thousand?" he asks. Still, Louws says details of the financial obligation will determine whether he approves or vetoes the plan.

But hold on a minute, says Tom Westergreen of Great Western Lumber Company of Everson. He predicts a timber industry lawsuit to overturn what he has called a county land grab that fails to consider the impact on an iconic industry struggling to exist. Great Western is the last sawmill in Whatcom County that buys standing timber and sells lumber. It had bid on some of the acreage that would be preserved within the new park.

Westergreen claims there are “irregularities” in the way the incipient parkland was assembled into contiguous blocks for the transfer. Significant parts, he says, were never in the 1930s county conveyance to the state, and thus not subject to reconveyance. A judge ruled a similar lawsuit to be premature some years ago, but Westergreen says the plaintiffs will be back.

Despite the controversy, Kremen says he’s cautiously optimistic for early approval by the council and very certain of approval by future hikers, bikers, and campers. 

“Just think what this park could mean years from now, when this is a city of 200,000 and here’s this wildland park with all these trails, right on their door step," he says. "What if we have this chance to do this, and we don’t do it?”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons is a longtime KING-TV reporter who has been writing news for print and television for 65 years.