Baker to Bellingham Non-Motorized Recreation Plan
by John Bremer
In April, Hillary S. Franz, the Commissioner of Public Lands, published a report titled “Baker to Bellingham Non-Motorized Recreation Plan.” The report is available on the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website. It is a 15-year plan to guide development of sustainable recreational trails and facilities on DNR working forestland in Whatcom County. The plan is based on three years of public meetings led by a citizens’ committee of representatives of interesteThe title “Baker to Bellingham” refers to DNR-managed lands scattered in the foothills and mountains from Stewart Mountain near the Lake Whatcom Reservoir on the west to the Federal forestlands near the Twin Sisters on the east and from the southern to the northern borders of Whatcom County. Areas identified for recreational development are near the Lake Whatcom Reservoir and the Mount Baker Highway.
The report mentions the conceptual Bellingham to Mt. Baker Trail and states that DNR is willing to participate in planning. Otherwise, the DNR report does not address that concept.
The report prioritizes potential projects. Most of the high priority projects are in two DNR units adjacent to Lake Whatcom Park named Stewart Mountain and Mirror Lake. Combined, these two units cover about 5,855 acres in the Lake Whatcom Reservoir watershed.
Lake Whatcom Park is in the Lake Whatcom Reconveyance, 8,000 acres that in 2014 was transferred from the state to Whatcom County to help protect water quality in the Lake Whatcom Reservoir. Other high priorities are a paragliding/hang gliding facility on Red Mountain and a water access facility on the North Fork of the Nooksack River.
The DNR nomenclature “Stewart Mountain Unit” and “Mirror Lake Unit” may be confusing. Both units to be developed for recreation are on the slopes of the real Stewart Mountain. The real Mirror Lake, a bog on the south side of Park Road, was a link in the obsolete Bellingham diversion of Middle Fork water to the reservoir. The DNR land around the bog is not slated for recreational development.
To add to our confusion, 15,000 acres of forestland to the north on the South Fork Valley slopes of the real Stewart Mountain is owned by Stewart Mountain Forest, LLC. According to the American Forest Management website, motorized recreation is permitted on the Stewart Mountain Forest, LLC land. A prior owner heavily logged that property, as you can see on Google maps satellite view.
Stewart Mountain DNR Unit
The Stewart Mountain DNR Unit is north of Lake Whatcom Park and east of Agate Bay. It covers both sides of Olsen Creek, which drains into the reservoir east of Y Road. The city of Bellingham Olsen Creek Preserve, made up from three watershed purchases and a conservation easement, covers 61 acres east of Agate Bay. A corner of the DNR Stewart Mountain Unit touches the shore of the reservoir near the mouth of Smith Creek, the site of a 1983 landslide.
The DNR recreation concept map, page 8 of the report, shows a trailhead near Y Road and a picnic area with an overlook on a ridge above Smith Creek. A trail would connect to the Lake Whatcom Park trail network near the top of the mountain. According to the report teport, access to the proposed facilities may require negotiation with private property owners to open a gated logging road to the public.
Mirror Lake DNR Unit
The part of the Mirror Lake DNR Unit to be developed north of Park Road is roughly bisected by the Bonneville power lines cleared land and the Wickersham Truck Road, a gated logging road. The Mirror Lake DNR Unit reaches Highway 9 in the South Fork Valley south of Acme. The Wickersham Truck Road connects the Mirror Lake Unit to Lake Whatcom Park. Near the overlook at the summit of Stewart Mountain, the Lake Whatcom County Park Chanterelle Trail connects with the Wickersham Truck Road.
The plan for the Mirror Lake Unit is to build and maintain trails. There is no plan to construct parking or other facilities. Now, there is a gravel parking area on the south side of Park Road near the bog.
Trail User Groups
The motorized user groups were strongly represented on the planning committee. Their campaign for roads and facilities was blocked by a 2018 Whatcom County zoning action to protect residents. A high priority project is to remedy motorized damage in the Lake Whatcom Reservoir watershed’s Stewart Mountain and Mirror Lake DNR Units.
For hikers, trail design provides reasonable grades, smooth dry surfaces, and an easy-to-follow route. The goal for hiking trails is accessibility for families with toddlers and children in backpacks and for octogenarians. Some trails will be designed for multiuse by mountain bikers and equestrians. And there may be bicycle-only trails, as on Galbraith Mountain and in Larrabee State Park. Bicyclists need rounded and banked turns. Equestrians need wider, sturdier trails with more overhead brush removal. Equestrians often pave with gravel to increase load carrying capacity.
Activities away from designated recreation facilities and trails are “dispersed recreation.” DNR will continue to allow camping, fishing, hunting, nature viewing, pleasure driving on forest roads, exploring, and firewood gathering (with DNR permits). Primary working forest management activities take precedence over these dispersed recreational activities.
The DNR criteria for restoration include: a) address public health and safety concerns; b) reduce or eliminate sediment delivery to streams; c) stabilize stream banks; d) restore soil and vegetation on impacted wetland and riparian buffers; and e) remediate habitat-related issues.
DNR will monitor and communicate with the public to protect restored areas.
Restoration specialists do not agree on the ends or the means of restoration. Reactions to this DNR announcement include dismay on the part of some ecologically minded people. One person is alarmed that managing sanctioned recreation will increase the human impacts on the watershed, overlooking the damage caused by the unsanctioned motorized traffic that now causes erosion and pushes sediment into streams.
Another imagines an old growth woodland undisturbed by human contact, rather than a working forest with armed gangs racing over social trails, spinning through mud on dirt bikes and mountain bikes, toting chainsaws to cut more trails. In fact, unsanctioned use is causing damage to these working forests and to the land. Implementing restoration and orderly managed recreation will minimize further damage.
Past recreational use, particularly by motorized users, has damaged the forest resources. Restoration will repair some of that damage. Users will be redirected away from unsustainable terrain to correct erosion and sediment delivery problems. Restoration will include revegetation.
DNR Sustainability Goals
The DNR report endorses sustainability in these Douglas fir plantations that are harvested on a 45- to 55-year cycle. In her cover letter, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary S. Franz wrote, “DNR works to ensure these lands protect water quality, preserve critical wildlife habitat, and provide access to recreation on some of the most beautiful areas in our state.”
Aesthetic and spiritual values are priceless. We can’t put a dollar value on the view from the overlook at the top of the Chanterelle Trail or on the presence of deer, bear, elk, cougar, Sasquatch, porcupines, and other creatures on Stewart Mountain any more than on the songbird nests in our gardens. There’s a NIMBY sensibility that we don’t want or need working Douglas fir plantations in our neighborhood.
Lake Whatcom Reservoir
The city of Bellingham draws its drinking water from the Lake Whatcom Reservoir. To protect water quality in the Lake Whatcom Reservoir, the reconveyance transferred ownership of about 8,000 acres from the state to Whatcom County. The county manages the reconveyance as preserves: Lake Whatcom Park on the east and the Lookout Mountain Preserve on the west. The state DNR Stewart Mountain and Mirror Lake units are also in the reservoir adjacent to the county’s preserve named Lake Whatcom Park.
Development in our reservoir has evolved over more than 100 years of settlement from coal mines, railroad and logging operations to today’s residential, commercial, logging, agricultural and recreational uses. The changes have been made under several governmental jurisdictions that cooperate on management.
The responsibility of the state DNR is to manage lands, including the state-owned trust lands and forestlands as working forests and the lakebed as aquatic lands. Management of the working forests entails management of sanctioned and unsanctioned recreation. Development of recreational facilities and trails serves the dual purposes of providing safe recreational opportunities and controlling the adverse environmental impacts of sanctioned and unsanctioned recreation.
To Bellingham citizens concerned about Lake Whatcom Reservoir water quality, the interaction among the various cooperating jurisdictions may seem mysteriously noisy.
• At the top, our Federal government establishes health and safety standards, including clean water standards and enforcement.
• The state Departments of Natural Resources, Ecology, and Fish and Wildlife are separately responsible. The DNR manages the forestlands as well as the lakebed. Ecology, which now is working on water management in WRIA1, has designated the Lake Whatcom Reservoir as an impaired waterbody for excessive phosphorus, and some of the streams entering the lake have been contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria.
• The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife operates the largest kokanee hatchery at the south end.
• Most of the land in the reservoir is unincorporated and governed by Whatcom County.
• The city limits of Bellingham extend into the watershed, and the city manages its drinking water systems. An urban growth area covers more of the populated watershed, and the city may incorporate the Geneva neighborhood.
• The Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District provides water service to approximately 3,633 residential customers and sewer service to approximately 3,883 residential customers in an 18 square mile area in the Lake Whatcom Reservoir.
• Residents at the south end receive their mail through the Sedro-Woolley post office.
• A Canadian company operates the large resort on an alluvial fan near the corner of Cain Lake Road and Lake Whatcom Boulevard, and many south end users are from nearby Vancouver suburbs.
• Western Washington University operates a recreational facility north of Sudden Valley. The Bellingham School District plans to develop a base for field trips at the south end.
• For the residential and commercial developments, there are fire districts and a Sudden Valley Community Association.
• There is a Lake Whatcom Policy Group and a Lake Whatcom Advisory Board.
• The Institute for Watershed Studies at Western Washington University audits the water quality in the Lake Whatcom Reservoir.
• The agriculture industry, sawmill operators, realtors, developers, bicycle and boat dealers, and others lobby for their interests.
A baseline for this cacophony is politics.
A proven solution to the water quality problems would be to enclose the watershed in a park, shut down development and buy out the property owners as they die or move away. With the lack of focused accountability for management and the decades required for implementation, that won’t happen. In the meantime, officials and civil servants will continue doing their jobs, with an eye out for any lobbyists threatening their funding or their function.
Implementing the Plan
The DNR has completed an environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act. Next steps will include site-specific assessments, field reconnaissance, and inventories.
An initial step in trail design will be to assess the existing user-built trails for sustainability and user experience. DNR will plan new trails “sustainably located and built to provide a safe recreation experience without compromising environmental and resource health.” Trail work will include restoration of damaged areas.
Trail building proceeds slowly. Costs to build are estimated in dollars per foot, from $3.00 to $15.00 per foot depending on the specifications and the situation. Much of the actual labor on DNR land will be provided by volunteers. Nationally, volunteer labor is valued at about $27 per hour.
If you have used local park trails recently, you have seen new signs with maps to aid your route finding. Producing and maintaining the signs is a major effort.
Once a trail is built, it requires annual maintenance. Storms down trees and large branches that require skilled sawyers to clear safely. Rain and snow runoff wash out sections and find low spots to make puddles that must be drained. Leaves, cones and branches accumulate on the surface to form soggy duff that must be hoed off. Salmonberry and other shrubs encroach and must be brushed back. These tasks are shared among DNR staff and volunteers.
Access to the Stewart Mountain and Mirror Lake trails will be through trail connections with the network under construction in Whatcom County Park District’s Lake Whatcom Park. The proposed Stewart Mountain Unit facilities would be accessible on forest roads that have been maintained for timber management. However, DNR must get the approval of private property owners to open gated forest roads to the public.
Recreational visitors may see DNR staff or contractors implementing the various treatments needed to bring a healthy crop of Douglas firs from planting to harvest — surveying, planting seedlings, slashing alders to release the conifers, herbiciding the big-leaf maples, thinning, or harvesting. To accommodate timber management, trails may be temporarily closed.
For realtors and residential property owners in the Lake Whatcom Reservoir, DNR management of fire risk may be most important. Thinning of doghaired woodlands is demanded to protect the interests of pioneering property owners. For example, the Lookout Mountain Preserve covers both doghaired and managed forestlands. Trails from the Lake Louise Road parking lot lead first through 400 doghaired acres the county bought from heirs of a private landowner. Near the top of the mountain, trails branch off through the managed forestland of the DNR Reconveyance.
Doghaired is defined as forests that have not had a fire run through them in a very long time, which tend to become very dense with many small diameter trees. These are known as “doghair” forests, because the trees are “as thick as the hair on a dog’s back.” These forests tend to have many dead lower branches due to the lack of sunlight, which act as fuel for fires. See: http://www.tetonwyo.org/475/Risk-Factors-Associated-with-Wildfires.
According to the Seattle Mountaineers, the Senate version of the proposed state budget shrinks funding for DNR recreation by redirecting some Discover Pass funds from DNR to the general fund. According to the Mountaineers, since 2008 DNR has closed 30 recreation sites.
DNR forest watch volunteers will support this program through group and individual assignments. DNR volunteers help build and maintain trails, and also serve as campground hosts and monitor the forests.
Washington Trails Association (WTA) volunteers provide much of the design and labor for trails in DNR forests. The WTA website provides trip reports on trails throughout Washington.
Forest watch and WTA volunteers work together to maintain trails in DNR forests at Samish Overlook and Oyster Dome.
Samish Overlook DNR Recreational Facilities
To see for yourself an example of DNR recreational facilities, visit the Samish Overlook on Blanchard Mountain. The overlook is accessible by a two-mile section of the Pacific Northwest Trail from Chuckanut Drive near the south end of the Chuckanuts or by road from the Alger exit off I-5.
The facilities include parking, an outhouse, picnic tables and an information kiosk. Hang gliders have a fenced launch point to soar over the Skagit Delta. There are scenic viewpoints to the south and west. A network of trails leads from the parking lot to scenic Oyster Dome and to campgrounds at Lily and Lizard lakes. The outhouse is maintained. There is no trash pickup. You are unlikely to see a sheriff or ranger patrol, but do need a Discover Pass. There is cell phone coverage. In good weather on weekends the lot may be full, but parking on the roadside is allowed.
The Baker to Bellingham Non-Motorized Recreation Plan report provides more details and information about the lower priority projects. The report is in concise plain English and includes several maps. The report is on the DNR website at: https://www.dnr.wa.gov/BakertoBellingham.
In 2003, John Bremer moved to Bellingham to work in the insurance business and he retired in 2011. In retirement, he has volunteered on outdoor projects including trail maintenance, ecological restoration and citizen science.