Desire of Botany

Politics of the park

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

At 10:30 the morning after the late-night park vote, County Council member Pete Kremen had not yet slept.

“I’d love to talk to you,” he told a caller, “but I can’t. I got to get some sleep and get ready for some afternoon meetings.”

Then he talked for half an hour. He defended the process—the “eight-year root canal,” he called it—that made possible Washington’s largest locally governed park and the 5-2 vote by County Council members, whipsawed by constituents who love or hate the notion of a Whatcom County park that appears to be the largest in the state and eighth largest in the United States.

Most of it’s timberland that Whatcom County took for non-payment of taxes in the 1930s and 1940s, then handed off to the state some 75 years ago to be managed for log production. The county takes it back, now, as a preposterously huge, green, wet, steep, wooded, “passive” park, used primarily for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding.

It won’t be the same specific acreage that the county turned over to the state, all those years ago. The parcels have been traded between Whatcom County and the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and “blocked up” into two large chunks. DNR keeps the parts most suitable for logging. Whatcom County takes those most at risk of eroding into Lake Whatcom, the drinking water source for 100,000 people. The new park will straddle the lake, 4,251 acres on the west side near Sudden Valley, and 4,593 acres on the east, bordering the existing Lake Whatcom Park and the Hertz trail along the lake.

Had DNR held onto the land, a portion of the upland acres would be logged. That’s what we pay DNR for—to manage timber as a revenue source for schools and local taxing districts.

Agreements between DNR and the county anticipate no logging in the park, other than what’s essential for trailheads and parking. Twenty miles of logging roads planned for the area will be cancelled.

Protecting Lake Whatcom has been a major driver for park proponents, and a matter of debate between academic scientists and Steve Hood, the state Department of Ecology’s environmental engineer in the Bellingham field office. Hood published a study, based on computer models, indicating that logging, or not, won’t matter much; movement of phosphorous and other pollutants into the lake will be nearly as great from the natural forest as it would from very carefully controlled logging.

Hood has said he’s neutral on the park issue; nevertheless his study became the focus of a stormy controversy. Opponent after hot-tempered park opponent claimed the Department of Ecology had proved that logging had no effect on water quality.

David Wallin vehemently challenges Hood’s findings. He teaches environmental science at Huxley College, and cites lists of studies finding that the canopy of mature timber and the roots of live trees help to keep hillsides in place, and that logging roads and ditches have the opposite effect.

Promoted as a shield for water quality, the wildland park was Kremen’s prized project during his final six years as County Executive. It motivated him to run for a County Council seat in 2011, where he defeated incumbent Tony Larson, and lead the campaign for the land transfer. He says he’s been “skewered and vilified” by park opponents, but feels vindicated by last week’s council vote.

“If I never do anything significant the rest of my life, I’ll die happy,” Kremen said. “I was part of something important. Maybe a hundred years from now, someone will say ‘I’m glad those visionaries got their act together.’”

Kremen, a Democrat, acknowledges the courage of two Republican conservatives—Sam Crawford and Kathy Kershner—who took politically risky votes in favor of the park. Kershner, chosen to chair the Council in the first year of her first term, faces re-election this year.

She was asked what brought her to Kremen’s point of view in support of the park.

“I didn’t come to Pete’s point of view,” she said. “I have my own point of view.”

Kershner is not convinced it’s a great boon to water quality, but she sees it as too great an opportunity to pass up, this chance to acquire wooded park land for what amounts to $33 an acre.

“Although I don’t cite that number any more,” Kersher cautioned. “We didn’t pay a dime for the land. The cost is for surveying the boundaries and making the transfer. So it’s a bit misleading to say we paid $33 an acre.”

Kremen, the veteran politician who shares Council District One with Kershner, says working with her has been “such a pleasant surprise. She got endorsements from the tea party right wing and a lot of people assumed she was going to govern that way. But she’s been very reasonable. She’s damned intelligent, and she does such an excellent and fair job of running the council meetings.”

Bold actions don’t come without cost, and rumors abound that Republican leaders will recruit an opponent to challenge Kershner in the fall, because of her park vote. Filing deadline is May 13, with the list of candidates announced May 18.

Meanwhile, some details remain to be settled before the 8,800 acres is officially county land. The transfer needs a final signoff by the state Board of Natural Resources, and that may take months.

Lawsuits may impose further delays. Warnings of legal action sounded throughout the March 12 public hearing.

Retired forester Dick Whitmore blasted the council for what he considers an outrageous land grab and warned the members, “Don’t think this is over. You’ll have lawsuits; you might as well get ready.”

He and Tom Westergreen, resource manager for Great Western Lumber Company of Everson, say the park proposal violates state law.

“The Growth Management Act requires protection of forest resource land,” Westergreen says.

“This park takes timberland out of production. That’s not protecting it, that’s robbing the timber industry of its resource base.”

Others at the hearing claimed the vote in favor of the park was illegal because Kremen and Council member Ken Mann “have been in on this from the beginning.” Kremen as former County Executive and Mann as a former Planning Commissioner should have abstained from voting because of their prior experience, critics complained.

Citizen after citizen declared the park to be a secret deal, done behind closed doors. Kremen produced list three pages long of the public meetings concerning the park reconveyance. There were 47 such meetings in the last four years, all of them open to the public.

Problem is, Kershner says, it’s a public process that the public doesn’t know about.

“We could have done a better job of getting the information out early. I mean, we ran these official notices in the newspaper and what good does that do?  Nobody reads them.”

“The information, that people said they didn’t have, was readily available over the last several years, but not readily accessible,” she said. “I went through the process of getting it and I can’t imagine the public going through that. I had to sort through reams of documents.”

Kersnher wants to open up the process of deciding where the trails are built, accommodating public recreation and the preservation of 8,800 acres that have been largely unused for 75 years.

“I want that process to be totally open,” she said. “Ideas need to be discussed by the public, not just in front of them. We want to make sure they know what ideas are being discussed and where they came from.”

Kershner thinks it’s time Whatcom County hired a public information person to connect 311 Grand Avenue with Wickersham.

“This person would work for both the executive and the council. They would be responsible for making sure the public knows what’s happening downtown and how it affects them.”
“We need to be sending mass emails, using social media, every means we can use, to keep citizens up to date with what the county’s doing.”

\As the planning for a “passive” park begins, so do the tough questions. How passive is passive? County Parks proposes 55 miles of trails. Can mountain bikers, hikers and horseback riders share all the trails?  Will parts of the new park be closed to bikers and equestrians? Can horses and mountain bikers get along on the same trails?

Last year the DNR closed off what it termed illegal mountain bike trails on its North Fork Nooksack forest northeast of Bellingham. Among other problems, DNR says erosion from the bike trails could impact water quality.

User conflicts have flared for years on the sprawling Issaquah Alps recreation areas in King County. Mountain bikes are now banned from Cougar Mountain Park to prevent more damage to a fragile ecosystem.

For all practical and political purposes, Whatcom County can finally claim its park, and Pete Kremen’s “eight year root canal” is over. Now it gets hard.

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