The Whatcom County Council voted Tuesday night to take back 8,700 acres of prime timber land that it handed over to the state Department of Natural Resources some eighty years ago. It is the next-to-last step in creating what may be the largest locally governed park in the state, which would straddle Lake Whatcom in two large blocks. The lake supplies drinking water to 90,000 people who live in Bellingham and surrounding communities.
The county wants to halt logging and road building on the watershed in an effort to prevent landslides of the sort that wiped out scores of houses and sent some 80 acres of logs and debris into the lake in 1983. The Council’s 5-to-2 vote sends a letter to the state’s Board of Natural Resources, asking the BNR to "reconvey" the land to the Whatcom County Department of Parks and Recreation.
The action caps 28 years of agitation to create such a park, beginning soon after the 1983 disaster. The vote followed daytime and evening public hearings during which Whatcom County citizens had their say — some almost prayerfully in support of the park, some bitterly opposed.
The property, covered with huge stands of hemlock and Douglas fir, became county property in the early 20th Century, after private owners cut the trees and neglected to pay their property taxes. Whatcom County, like many others in the timber producing areas of Washington, turned the woodland over to DNR during the Depression era to manage as commercial timber. Revenue from timber sales has benefited public schools and other taxing districts within the county. So long as DNR manages the watershed, some logging will continue under a restrictive "landscape plan" administered jointly by state and local governments. The county would stop logging, eliminate some nine miles of existing logging roads, and restrict park uses to the "passive" pursuits of hiking and mountain biking.
Park advocates argued that publicity to the new park will attract tourism, a growing industry in the county which hit a record high of over $500 million last year, according to a report by Dean Runyan Associates. Opponents warn that Whatcom County, whose budget is as thin as most Washington counties, can’t afford to lose timber jobs while taking on the responsibility of managing the new park.
There’s dispute over the extent to which preservation of the timbered hillsides will help to protect water quality in Lake Whatcom. A lead advocate for the park, Pete Kremen – formerly County Executive, now County Councilmember – believes the water quality benefits are huge. Councilmember Sam Crawford and Council chair Kathy Kershner disagree, although they joined Kremen and two others in voting to establish the park. It isn’t a matter of water quality, Crawford and Kershner argued, but a matter of local control over local public assets.
Kershner pointed out that the cost of taking the land back from the state will amount to less than $35 an acre. "Where else in the world can you buy watershed land with prime timber for that price?"
The park project faces two more potential obstacles. DNR and its governing board in Olympia have yet to approve land transfers that will be needed to "block up" the ownership into two manageable blocks, one on either side of the lake. And representatives of the timber industry have threatened a lawsuit that could halt the takeover by the county.
Neither of those possibilities seemed to loom large in the minds of the council majority Tuesday night. As Kremen pointed out, reconfiguring the ownership actually benefits the timber industry, as it leaves the most accessible and valuable timber – the less steep lowlands – with the state. The county will take over the steeper areas, the least desirable for logging, and the most prone to heading downhill should a repeat of the 1983 storm occur.