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Lake Whatcom Q & A

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Frequently asked questions and answers about Lake Whatcom and a proposed new Lake Whatcom Forest Preserve Park.

Where is the proposed Lake Whatcom forest preserve park?

The park includes about 8,700 acres of land that is comprised of the steepest slopes of Lookout Mountain (on the southwest side of the lake) and Stewart Mountain (on the southeast side of the lake), along Lake Whatcom. Lake Whatcom provides drinking water to more than half of Whatcom County's 200,000 residents.

County website on the lands transfer. Preserve details. Two parcels bird's eye view.

What are some of the attributes that make this park special?

Views from the ridges of Lookout and Stewart Mountains are breathtaking. A hiker can see snow-capped mountains, brilliant blue lakes, coastal islands, and an expanse of forest-covered foothills. The forests contain streams and old-growth remnant groves. These forests in time will grow into old growth. Already, marbled murrelets, a rare seabird that requires older coast forests for nesting, have been occasionally documented here. Trails on the reconveyed lands will create an important link in a system of trails that will eventually connect Mount Baker to Bellingham Bay. WTA bus system service is available to many access points in the Lookout Mountain portion of the park. A hiker will be able to hike point-to-point with no need for a car.

Who controls the lands now, and how does this change with "reconveyance"?

"Reconveyance" is the term for  transfer of lands, in this case in the Lake Whatcom watershed from state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to Whatcom County  Park management. Switching from state to county management gives more local control over these forests. The county has a better track record than DNR of responsiveness to local needs on recreation and conservation.

The 8,700 acres are presently owned and managed by the DNR as part of its larger (15,000 acres, total) holdings in the watershed. The DNR manages these lands under the Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan to generate timber logging revenue for various trusts.

The 8,700 acres are lands that used to belong to the county – mostly through tax defaults on private timberland – but was deeded to the state to manage in trust. State law allows counties to take back, or reconvey, such lands for park purposes.

Mountain biking. Brad Walton/WHIMPs
Mountain biking. Brad Walton/WHIMPs

 Won’t trail building and recreation damage the environment in the watershed?

Environmental damage from the proposed park development and recreation will be negligible, especially compared to the clear cutting and road building currently being done for logging.

Tree on Stewart Mtn
Tree on Stewart Mtn

How will the Lake Whatcom forest preserve park be managed; what kind of park is envisioned?

Whatcom County Parks will develop a plan to restore and manage these lands as mature and old-growth forest habitat with carefully constructed, non-motorized trail use similar to the Stimpson Forest Reserve. The lands have exceptional views and will provide for great hiking, running, camping, biking, and equestrian use consistent with water quality goals. Any management inconsistent with such park use would be grounds (under the reconveyance statute) for the state to reclaim the property.

As currently proposed, the Lake Whatcom Forest Preserve Park will exist in two large blocks of roughly equal size, one on 1) Lookout Mountain, lying to the west of Lake Louise Road, stretching from Cain Lake north to Galbraith Mountain; and the other 2) on Stewart Mountain,  rising above the lake's current Hertz trail along the lake's north shore.

Recreational trails in the Lookout parcel will be developed to connect existing parks such as Squires Lake, Whatcom Falls, Lake Padden, Lookout Mountain Preserve, and Stimpson Forest Reserve. Existing hiking trails and some new ones will provide access to this area.

How much will the new park cost the county?

Because the county already owns the land: in a sense, there are no real estate acquisition costs. The transaction costs include county staff time and county payments to the state of almost $300,000 for DNR staff time. Fire control will continue to be the state’s responsibility. Annual maintenance and operation costs of the park will be modest for the county, equal to two to three FTEs. The county will take on capital costs–such as removing unneeded and damaging logging roads and building trails–as dedicated funds, such as grants, become available.

Won’t there be less timber revenue?

Due to the steep and unstable nature of these acres, logging on them has been controversial since a major landslide harmed property, homes, and the lake in 1983. Therefore there has been little recent logging or logging revenue – even since the Landscape Plan, with its higher regulations, was approved in 2005. Still, what logging would have occurred would have generated funds for DNR, the county, Mt. Baker and Bellingham School Districts, and other smaller trusts. For most, the amount of foregone funding is too modest to express concern about, especially in comparison to the public benefits of recreation, habitat, and reduced risk of harm to people and the lake.

The Mt. Baker School District has raised concerns. The formulas for state and local distribution of trust revenues are extremely complicated, but most people agree that taking these lands out of timber production could reduce logging revenues to the MB school district by less than $20,000/year, averaged over long time spans. Most of this shortfall would be made up for by automatic adjustments in local levy rates.

Will there be any revenues from the park land?

The county may be able to receive revenue from compatible uses, potentially including leasing for an existing cellular tower and perhaps wind power generation.

Will the park affect other properties in the watershed?

Some have argued that by preserving these beautiful lands, we will make the area so attractive that a land rush and destructive development will occur. There seems little basis for this concern. The lands are already state forest, available for recreation, surrounding a lake that is already scenic. Nevertheless, as valuable as the park will be to minimizing certain threats to water quality, it is absolutely essential that the city of Bellingham and Whatcom County continue with all other actions to control development, reduce stormwater problems, and otherwise reverse the degradation of Lake Whatcom, our drinking water source.

Will there be new parking lots built in the watershed to access the park?

No. Any new lots will be built outside the watershed. The only new parking lot in the watershed is one that is already planned and in the works for the existing trails at Lookout Mt. Preserve. Many trailheads will be accessible by WTA bus.

Are there any economic benefits of this park?

Eco-tourism, trail running, mountain biking, and hiking are fast becoming a big revenue producer for Whatcom County. These activities bring active, environmentally responsible tourists this area. In the long run, the preserved old-growth forests and natural beauty of Whatcom County can be one of its biggest economic assets.

Many people are concerned that mountain bikers and other users will illegally build steep trails for jumps and extreme riding. How will this be prevented?

First of all, this is happening right now under Department of Natural Resources management. If the reconveyed lands become part of Whatcom County Parks, unsuitable and dangerous trails will be formally obliterated and the land will be monitored for illegal trail building.

The county parks trail program has an excellent track record of aggressively suppressing illegal trail building, unauthorized motorized use and squatting on Chuckanut Mountain, and in the thousands of acres it currently manages.

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