BELLINGHAM - Some on the Whatcom County Council had more questions than answers after a meeting Tuesday, Jan. 15, about a county park that would be developed on nearly 9,000 acres of what is now state timberland around Lake Whatcom.
The council's preferences for recreation on the slopes west and east of the lake remain unclear, and county Executive Jack Louws asked that the topic be addressed at the beginning of a second meeting on the proposed park, on Jan. 29, when council is scheduled to talk about forest management.
A third informational meeting, on the park budget, will be held in February, before a final council vote on transferring 8,844 acres of timberland from the state to the county. That vote is likely two or three months away, Louws said.
For now, council members are mostly setting aside their positions on whether there should even be a park and considering what the park should feature. Consensus of county staff and those council members who have expressed an opinion is that the park should emphasize trails for nonmotorized uses such as horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking. Polluting runoff into the lake and disruption of critical habitat need to be avoided, they said.
More specific plans, such as where to lay trails and how many to build, would come if council approves the land transfer. An environmental review and multiple permits would be required, with several more opportunities for public comment.
The outcome on the vote for the land transfer, or reconveyance, remains uncertain. Some on the council, Kathy Kershner and Barbara Brenner among them, have shown interest in keeping the land in state hands and developing a recreation plan in cooperation with the Department of Natural Resources.
Parks and Recreation Director Mike McFarlane said if state ownership continued, recreation on the land would be years away, if the state agreed to it at all.
"This would be very difficult to do," he said.
The state's first priority on the land is timber harvesting, McFarlane said.
A park in the reconveyed area would benefit the community by connecting other parks to neighborhoods in Bellingham and Glenhaven Lakes, McFarlane said. It would also tie Bellingham to the Pacific Northwest Trail, which is under development from the Washington coast to Montana. The park would be bordered by Galbraith Mountain to the west, Squires Lake Park to the south, and Lake Whatcom Park on the north end of the park's east side.
Recreational options McFarlane enumerated at the meeting included camping, fishing, hunting, dog walking and wildlife viewing. Many of these activities are already happening there, he said.
Council members Sam Crawford and Carl Weimer said they were OK with all of the activities mentioned. Other council members didn't weigh in to Louws' satisfaction.
Brenner wasn't convinced hunting would be safe in the same park that hosted educational outings for children.
She also contradicted McFarlane about the feasibility of recreation on the land under state ownership. Brenner said a former DNR manager told her it would be easy for the county to get permission from the state to use the timberland for recreation.
"We would have much better access, and DNR could be our eyes on the land," Brenner said.