The Great Park

by Ramona Abbott

Lake Whatcom Lake Whatcom

Great cities have great parks. Imagine New York City without Central Park to alleviate the miles of concrete and steel. Who has not walked or biked in Stanley Park in Vancouver? Seattle residents can hike and walk for hours in rugged Discovery Park. Soon, Bellingham will join this pantheon with our very own Great Park.

Pack up the gear and family, cross the border, and head to the Great Park hugging the shores of Lake Whatcom. Perhaps you visit downtown Bellingham first and then decide to take a bus to the entrance to the park; perhaps you drive, or maybe you are completely intrepid and you rent mountain bikes. In any case you find yourself at the trailhead, ready to set the cares of the modern day aside.

GreatParkmapBreathing in the forest air, which feels like it has far more oxygen than prosaic city air, you hike up through deeply peaceful paths of emerald and cedar green. A silence enfolds you, a silence born of deeply carpeted forest floors, softened by decades of falling evergreen needles and branches. The kind of silence that fills your soul and lets you breathe more deeply than you remembered you could. An enchanting weekend of hiking, riding your mountain bike, and back-country camping can create the memories families talk of around dinner tables for years to come.

The genesis of the Great Park came nearly a decade ago and was the response to two basic questions posed by government officials, environmentalists, and citizens of Whatcom County: How can we further protect the quality of Bellingham’s drinking water source, Lake Whatcom, and how can we maximize recreational opportunities so that residents and visitors can enjoy our beautiful surroundings? The answer to both these questions turned out to be the Whatcom County Reconveyance. In 2005, then-County Executive Pete Kremen and County Council member Dan McShane were discussing ways to protect the Lake Whatcom watershed as well as expand opportunities for recreational activities in the surrounding forests. The result of that conversation was to propose the transfer of approximately 3,579 hectares of land (8,844 acres) from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to Whatcom County.

While the Reconveyance is a complicated matter, here is a simple way to visualize it. Imagine a patchwork crazy quilt in red and blue pieces. The Reconveyance essentially says “I’ll swap you all my red quilt pieces for your blue on the top half of the quilt, and all of my blue for your red on the bottom half.” The net result was more cohesive and larger connected parcels of land for both entities. Most of the land was too steep for logging, though logging was a theoretical possibility. DNR ended up with more usable land for their purposes, and Whatcom County is now poised to have one of the largest parks in the region.

No major effort such as this comes without controversy, and there were objections to this plan. Some were worried about the potential loss of timber revenues, part of which benefits the Mount Baker School District. To alleviate these concerns, Rand Jack, a founding member and board member of the Whatcom Land Trust, worked with the Mount Baker school board to accurately quantify the amount of money concerned (an intricate process), and then find an anonymous donor to offset any projected amount with a $500,000 bequest. Those monies were then invested in an S&P index fund; as we go to press, the value is now $675,000.

Lake Whatcom is the main source of drinking water for the City of Bellingham. The quality of that water is put at risk primarily by development; toxins and pollutants from construction and other sources can create unsatisfactory results in water quality. These quality issues can be rectified by (very expensive) water treatment plants or by increasing the areas of forest canopy, which is also expensive. This is one reason the Reconveyance, which covers between one-quarter and one-third of the entire Lake Whatcom watershed, was so important. According to Mr. Kremen, “We paid approximately $35 per acre, which in this day and age, especially for that vast amount of acreage, was an economic bargain, and an exceedingly cost-effective way to significantly improve the ultimate health of the watershed and the lake itself.”

Lake Whatcom

Lake Whatcom

Everyone involved in the process spoke of the teamwork that brought this about, from the County Council to all of the organizations involved. Mitch Friedman of Conservation Northwest says, “I have been deeply impressed with how the community came together to bring about this park; we had conservationists, equestrians, bikers, hikers, runners, all working together. While there is potential for user conflict there, the leadership of all these groups appears committed to a future that not only balances and integrates their respective uses, but is sustainable for use and water quality and wildlife.”
From one side of Lake Whatcom to another, and then south into and through the Chuckanut Mountains, you wind your way through what Whatcom County Parks & Recreation Director Mike McFarlane hopes will be 50 to 55 miles of trails in the Great Park alone, which will then connect to other park facilities and trails. “This will be a significant resource base for various types of recreation without being too crowded,” he says.

One group standing by ready to help is the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition. Eric Brown, trail director for the group, is very enthusiastic. “With this park, we can make sure that the trails we build, in concert with the Parks Department and other volunteer groups, will look at what infrastructure exists, how we can serve many kinds of user groups, and how we can build sustainable trails that will be designed to have full connectivity with other existing parks and trails. Being able to build trails that will be around for my daughter and her children is very exciting.”

Exciting, indeed. We can’t wait until the Great Park opens and Bellingham joins the ranks of other great cities, with a world-class park right in our backyard.

By Ramona Abbott


Celebrate a great new park!

The largest local park in Washington state is now at Lake Whatcom

  • Saturday, Jan 25, 1-3 pm
  • Bloedel Donovan Community Bldg
  • 2214 Electric Avenue, Bellingham

Enjoy free refreshments! At 2 pm, share in our community’s accomplishment at a celebratory presentation recognizing those who helped make the park happen. This is a family event. Kids can bring their bikes (and helmets) for fun on an outdoor bike course staffed by the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition. Learn about world-class recreation opportunities and trails at the new Lake Whatcom park and share in the excitement! Find us on Facebook, Lake Whatcom Park Celebration; or call Danielle at Whatcom Land Trust, 360-746-3164.

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