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Lake Whatcom County Park

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Lake Whatcom is a natural, deep water lake between Mount Baker and Bellingham, and sole drinking water for 90,000 people. Now a quarter of the forested watershed is the largest local park in Washington.

Between Mount Baker and Bellingham Bay

Lake Whatcom and Mt. Baker, photo by Lyle Jansma
Lake Whatcom and Mt. Baker, photo by Lyle Jansma

A new Lake Whatcom county park protects nearly 15 square miles of the steep forested slopes around an important drinking lake, just outside of Bellingham. The Lake Whatcom park features old-growth forests, habitat for wildlife, and world-class outdoor recreation opportunities.

Celebrating a new park

The new forest park at Mt Stewart and Lookout Mountain protects 15 square miles of a local watershed, making it the largest local park in the state. Lake Whatcom supplies water to 90,000 people, half of Whatcom County's residents.

A great new park. Photo Tore Ofteness
A great new park. Photo Tore Ofteness

Since 2008, Whatcom Land Trust, Conservation Northwest, Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition, Cascade Mountain Runners, and Whatcom County residents have worked with Whatcom County to protect remnant old growth groves, wildlife habitat, and feeder streams to the lake. The Lake Whatcom park offers local control of natural resources, world-class outdoor recreation, while maintaining quality municipal drinking water. In time, the park will mature into old-growth forest for future generations.

The proposed park rests on "reconveyance" would transfer 8,700 acres from state to county management. State law provides for reconveyance to occur without payment of certain categories of land such as these, historically owned by the county but to date managed by the state. The county has invested nearly $300,000 to reach this point for the proposed preserve.


The new Lake Whatcom park:
  • Restores local control of a community watershed
  • Protects forests and wildlife habitat, including habitat for marbled murrelets and clean water for fish
  • Restores old-growth quality forest
  • Offers low-impact recreation opportunities, from hiking to biking
  • Attracts recreation events and an outdoor-minded professional talent pool to revitalize a local economy

One of two reconveyance parcels, Lookout Mountain, rises above Sudden Valley just near Galbraith Mountain. The other parcel, Stewart Mountain, adjoins the popular Hertz Trail along the lake's north shore.

Steps to a new local park

  • In May 2012, the proposed park won local county approval.
  • In July 2012, ditto, the Washington Board of Natural Resources.
  • In September 2012, the Whatcom County Council held a public hearing attended by hundreds of people.
  • Also in September, the council voted to to delay a final vote till next year.
  • In March 2013 the county council approved the reconveyance.
  • In January 2014, Governor Inslee signed the deed affirming the reconveyance and the new park.

Lake Whatcom watershed

Natural, deep-water Lake Whatcom near Bellingham, Washington, is the sole source of drinking water for more than 90,000 people. The lake's watershed covers some 56 square miles. Half of the watershed is privately owned and the other half is made up of public lands managed by DNR for various trusts, with a focus on logging in the watershed to generate revenue.

Roughly half of the DNR-managed land around Lake Whatcom was granted at statehood to support schools, while the other half belongs to the county. These were private lands which the county claimed after tax defaults early last century. State law allows counties to transfer (or "reconvey") such land  away from the DNR providing the counties have a recreation plan for the lands. The land transfer, or reconveyance, is now in process.

Bird's eye view of the park parcels.

Clean water

The soils of the Lake Whatcom watershed are largely unconsolidated and unstable. Logging operations channel sediment pollution into the lake and have caused landslides onto communities and the into the water. That sediment contains phosphorous, which fosters algae growth and greatly degrades water quality.

As the number of people living here grows, so does the need to protect clean water in Lake Whatcom, an important drinking water source. While stormwater runoff from residential development is the biggest threat, runoff and landslides from logging and associated roads is a real threat, especially on steep slopes.

A history of protection

Part private land, part state-managed land, Lake Whatcom has several communities built right down to the lake shore; boats and engines are allowed on the lake waters, and logging promoted on the state lands.

In 2000, Conservation Northwest and others persuaded the legislature to unanimously pass the Lake Whatcom bill requiring DNR to develop a landscape plan to protect water and local neighborhoods. In 2004, DNR adopted a Lake Whatcom Landscape Management Plan, developed in consultation with a local advisory committee. The landscape plan is in effect. It rests on a strong legal foundation and is rooted in community support, regulating logging on DNR land here to a higher standard than anywhere else in the state.

But DNR will still be logging substantial areas, including clear-cuts of up to 100 acres, within the Lake Whatcom watershed by constructing dozens of miles of new road, in some cases across steep, unstable slopes. Reconveyence will prevent this by consolidating (through intertrust land swap) county land onto the steepest slopes of Lookout and Stewart Mountains, and placing them into forest preserve.

Read a history of protecting the Lake Whatcom watershed.
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