Civic Agenda: Whatcom County parks department serves open space, recreation


The Stimpson Family Nature Reserve is one of the wild places managed by the Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department. It features some four miles of trails through lush wetlands and mostly second-growth cedar, fir and hemlock. Its easy trails are well-maintained, and creek crossings feature solid bridges. There are some hilly portions, but no long, steep switchbacks. Total elevation gain/loss is only a couple hundred feet.


The Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department manages and oversees the maintenance and operations of county park lands and facilities. This oversight includes a wide variety of properties, structures and amenities along with their ground, water and sanitary systems, roads and electrical needs. The department also manages numerous leases, easements and contracts with other agencies and municipalities for provision of park, recreation and senior services.

The department has a small but dedicated full-time staff comprised of rangers, maintenance crews and administrative and management staff. This is further supplemented by seasonal and part-time workers and hundreds of hours of volunteer help in the parks and senior centers.

The appointed seven person Parks and Recreation Commission serves as a citizen's advisory committee to the department.

The mission of the Parks and Recreation Department is to enrich the quality of life for the community and preserve the natural and cultural heritage of the county through provision of outstanding parks, trails, open space, natural areas, recreational activities and senior services. This is best reflected in the variety and number of park facilities and over a million visitations in 2013.

The department was born out of community concerns in the early 1960s that recreational and open space lands were rapidly being lost to development and little public access to the waterfront, lakes and rivers in the county was available. In 1964, completion of Interstate 5 was fast approaching and speculation was that the remaining waterfront and open space lands would quickly disappear and opportunities would be lost forever as visitors discovered the beauty of area.

In May the following year, County Commissioners formed a parks board. Immediately board efforts were focused on completing an outdoor recreation plan for the county to qualify for available federal and state funding assistance to acquire parklands. In November of 1965, a $2 million bond issue was approved by county voters and Ken Hertz was hired as the first director to lead the department and development of the new park system. By July of 1968, Samish Park was completed and dedicated as the county's first of many park areas.

Through countless hours of work by the community and the efforts of volunteers, organizations, citizens and staff over the past 49 years, the Whatcom County parks system has grown to over 16,000 acres encompassing a wide variety of parks and natural areas which include tidelands, beaches, forests, senior activity centers, trails, gardens, campgrounds, historic homes, playfields, a rifle range and much more. The majority of park areas are free and access to county park lands does not require a state Discover Pass.

You can learn of the history of the county in the many historic buildings and displays in the parks. These include the 1901 Hovander Farm Home and buildings at Hovander Park and the Roeder Home in Bellingham built in 1909, both on the National Registry of Historic Places, the Gerdrum Home at Silver Lake Park rumored to have been built from a single cedar log and the adjoining Black Mountain Forestry Center featuring exhibits on the county's rich logging history, and the Alaska Packers Association museum and cannery buildings at Semiahmoo Park with displays on the early salmon fishing and processing industry. The Hertz trail along the east shore of Lake Whatcom and the Bay to Baker Trail in Maple Falls both follow historic railroad lines now abandoned.

For a quick weekend getaway, try the cabins or campground at Silver Lake Park. Row boats and paddle boats can be rented for fishing on the lake, there are trails for hiking throughout the park and a new playground was installed last year. The campground at Lighthouse Marine Park located in Point Roberts provides a shore experience and is a great place to watch marine life. The park is on the Whale Trail and one of the few places in the county to observe orcas from the shore in July, August and September. Samish Park offers swimming, picnicking and boat rentals during the summer months. There are picnic shelters and lodges available to rent in many parks for your next family get together, wedding or even office retreat.

For hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders, the county parks have over 50 miles of trails waiting to be explored. Difficulty varies from easy and fully accessible to strenuous and challenging. With a few exceptions, most are available for use year round.

While the parks system provides opportunities for many types of recreational activities, from the beginning there has been a strong commitment to preserve the natural environment while providing access. This is exemplified today in places such as the Stimpson Family Nature Reserve, Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve, Lily Point Marine Park and Canyon Lake Community Forest. Parks are home to a wide variety of wildlife and habitats and are excellent places to discover the natural world.

In 2010 the county changed the way it was delivering senior programming at the four largest centers in the cities of Bellingham, Ferndale, Blaine and Lynden and transitioned to contracting directly for these services with the centers' nonprofits and municipalities. This provided more flexibility for providing services by allowing the centers to undertake expanded hours and offerings. The county owns three of the eight centers in the county and continues to provide programming directly at the four smaller sites. The centers provide opportunities for older adults to socialize and stay active. In addition to a noon meal program, participants can take advantage of a variety of trips, hikes, programs and events. The larger centers offer strength training programs complete with equipment and workout rooms. Hovander Homestead Park will again host Senior Day in the Park this summer on Wednesday, Aug. 6. This event, open to all county seniors, features a barbecue lunch, music and vendor booths.

As the county Parks and Recreation Department looks forward to the next 50 years, a number of projects and planning initiatives are underway.

Work will begin later this year on a new park located along the south fork of the Nooksack River in the Acme area. Unlike other parks, visitors will hike, bike or horse ride back in time to the historic Nesset farmstead, which is currently undergoing restoration. Renovations to campsites and day use areas continue at Silver Lake Park and a restroom building will be installed this summer at the Stimpson Family Nature Reserve.

The department is also in the process of completing its six-year comprehensive parks, recreation and open space plan and undertaking the planning process for the 8,800 acres of state trust lands around Lake Whatcom that were transferred to the county this past January. You can participate in these planning efforts by attending meetings or follow the progress on line at

It is only with the help and support of the community that the Parks and Recreation Department can continue to provide outstanding facilities and recreational opportunities. We extend our sincere appreciation and thank you to our visitors and the many groups, organizations and volunteers that continue to make the Whatcom County Parks System a success.


Michael McFarlane is director of the Whatcom County Parksand Recreation Department. This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws to provide to share updates about Whatcom County issues and projects. He invites citizens to contact him at 360-676-6717 or

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