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Officials: Lake Whatcom not best fit for state recreation plan

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By Ralph Schwartz
The Bellingham Herald

The recreation potential of Lake Whatcom will only be realized if these lands are reconveyed to the Whatcom County Parks Department in the shape of a forest preserve park: "...it appears unlikely that [DNR] would develop a recreation plan around the lake, according to people close to the discussions."

As Whatcom County officials debate whether a county park or a state recreation plan will work better on the forestlands around Lake Whatcom, signs suggest the state would look elsewhere in the county to site trails for hikers, bicycles and all-terrain vehicles.

This means that if locals and tourists want a new trail system and campsites on 8,844 acres around the lake, they probably are relying on the County Council to approve the county park.

An official from the state Department of Natural Resources, which now manages that land, said it hasn't assessed possible recreation sites in the county and hasn't made any decisions.

But it appears unlikely that it would develop a recreation plan around the lake, according to people close to the discussions.

Critics of the county park idea have argued the state would do a better job of creating recreational opportunities on the western and eastern flanks of Lake Whatcom while maintaining some commercial forestry, which brings revenue to schools and local governments.

People on both sides of the issue, and the DNR, agree there is not enough trail-based recreation in the county to meet demand.

The County Council has scheduled a public hearing for March 12 on the transfer, or reconveyance, of state-managed land to the county - a necessary first step toward creating the park. The final vote on the reconveyance could happen that night.

Council member Barbara Brenner has said that before the vote, she wanted to explore the recreational options in a landscape plan that governs the state's forestry practices around the lake.

"I want to find out from the forestry community whether our landscape plan pretty much solves most of the things we've been talking about," Brenner said at a Jan. 29 meeting.

Mark Mauren, DNR's recreation program manager, will speak to the council at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26. The meeting will be held in the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.

"I know they're primed to argue over Lake Whatcom," Mauren said. "I'm going to focus on (where to site recreation) and avoid the whole discussion of reconveyance and no reconveyance."

If the state Legislature approves funding for state recreation planning for the fiscal year starting on July 1, Whatcom is high on the list of counties to be included in that planning, Mauren said. The greatest demand for recreation in Whatcom County comes from mountain bikers and riders of motorized off-road vehicles, he said.

"We'll look at ... what blocks of land have the right combinations of soil and terrain ... such that we could site recreational opportunities and minimize the impact to the environment," Mauren said.

The acres proposed for the county park are noted for their steep slopes and landslides. Off-road vehicles are widely viewed as creating too high a risk of erosion and lake pollution to be a realistic option for Lake Whatcom.

The state already has good data on the geology around the lake, said Mike McFarlane, county Parks and Recreation director.

"They could make a fairly quick determination ... there's probably better places in the county to put things," McFarlane said.

Council member Bill Knutzen, who along with Brenner opposes the reconveyance, said recreationists would be better served by a state plan than a county park.

However, he doesn't think Lake Whatcom is the best place for a DNR plan. With Bellingham's drinking water just down the hill, it's too environmentally sensitive.

"ATVs or whatever we're looking at - I don't think that that's the area to encourage that," he said.

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