Planning for Whatcom County's newest, largest park will begin this spring

After years of controversy came celebration as about 200 people gathered recently at Bloedel Donovan Park to cheer the transfer of 8,844 acres of forestland around Lake Whatcom from the state to the county for use as a new park.

Known as a reconveyance, the transfer of land in the Lake Whatcom watershed also created the largest park under local control in Washington state. It's more than three times the size of Larrabee State Park.

The transfer became final Jan. 22, when Whatcom County received the deed from the Department of Natural Resources.

"Everyone who worked on the reconveyance is a conservationist," Rand Jack of the Whatcom Land Trust said to those assembled. "For various reasons - ecosystems, recreation, drinking water, economics - we all wanted to conserve this exceptional natural place."

Next up: Doing an inventory to determine exactly what's on the landscape and planning for the new park, a public process that is expected to begin this spring.

Two parcels of land make up the new park. One is on the slopes of Stewart Mountain on the southeast side of the lake. The other is on Lookout Mountain, also known as Galbraith, on the southwest side.

"What we have is a vision. We have a number of things to balance," Mike McFarlane, director of Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department, told those gathered. "We have a lot of work ahead of us. Stay with us and we'll get it done yet."

The reconveyance was years in the making and included acrimony over taking commercial forestland and turning it over to the county for parkland, plus questions about how much the effort would actually help water quality.

It's a long timeline that included Pete Kremen, then Whatcom County executive, approaching the Whatcom Land Trust more than eight years ago about the idea of a land transfer.

"At that time it seemed like pie in the sky," Jack recalled.

Kremen, whom Jack called the "father of the reconveyance," couldn't be at the celebration. But among those in attendance were other key public and elected officials who helped make the reconveyance possible, as well as conservation, recreation and business leaders.

To Eric Brown of the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition, the effort is about diverse groups coming together, and what can be accomplished when conservationists and recreationalists aren't at odds.

Mitch Friedman, executive director for Conservation Northwest, echoed those thoughts.

"We all realize that the lake is a really important resource," he said.

Lake Whatcom is the drinking water source for more than half the residents of Whatcom County.

The parks department will develop a plan to restore and manage the land as mature and old-growth forest habitat with non-motorized trail use akin to Stimpson Family Nature Reserve.

Hiking, running, camping, biking and horseback riding would be allowed - balanced with protecting the lake's water quality and with resource management of streams and forestland where marbled murrelets, a rare and endangered seabird, have been documented.

Miles of trails are expected to be part of a trail system that could one day connect Mount Baker to Bellingham Bay, and to existing parks.

Such groups as Bike Coalition, Cascade Mountain Runners, and the Whatcom Chapter of Backcountry Horsemen of Washington State are expected to take part in the trails effort. All have had experience building and maintaining trails - and galvanizing volunteers to do so.