Bill Serrahn walks through his backyard and into the woods, following a well-defined trail though second-growth cedar and fir. He leads the way toward the Cowlitz River, turning onto faint game trails that he’s marked with tape.
At least once a day, Serrahn hikes through this forest, which he mostly shares with the elk. He’s seen bears, eagles, beavers, otters, grouse — even a cougar once. Humans, though, are not frequent visitors.
“My goal is to get more people to know about this and use it,” Serrahn says.
This forest is on a 175-acre plot of land owned by Washington State Parks. The agency acquired it in 1990, but it’s never been developed or added to its parks inventory. Instead, it sits untouched, open to the public but largely unnoticed. No signs announce its presence.
The land straddles Skate Creek leading up to its confluence with the Cowlitz River. Craig Road forms its northern and western boundaries, with Skate Creek Road separating it from private land on the east side. The sweep of the river marks its southern boundary.
This strip of land features dense forest, with cedars and firs, mosses and ferns. Cottonwoods and alders spring up in other areas. Near the waterways, it opens up to wide-open views of surrounding peaks. Wide, easy-to-follow trails cut through the center of the forest, and Serrahn has added tape to mark more primitive trails close to the water, following the paths made by elk.
Serrahn has become the unofficial custodian of this park-that’s-not-a-park, creating maps that he’s placed at trail entrances and businesses in Packwood. He calls it Skate Creek State Park.
“This was a big secret when I moved here,” he said.
Though more people have discovered the trails in the 13 years since Serrahn moved to Packwood from Seattle, he’s hoping to see them become more of a community asset. Recently, the Packwood Trail Project nonprofit has been advocating for new trails on National Forest land near town, citing the lack of trails with easy vehicle access, flat terrain and low elevation below the winter snow line.
This state park land meets all of those criteria, Serrahn noted, and though it has only about three miles of trails, the forest and waterways offer plenty of variety.
“It’s just like a meditation to come here in the morning,” he said.
While Serrahn is not opposed to the addition of new trails near Packwood, he’d like to see more people use what they already have.
“This is right in Packwood’s backyard,” he said.
Part of his desire to build more public awareness of the property is to also build support for its conservation. At present, the agency has no official plans for the land, whether to turn it into an official state park or to sell it off. It’s been approved as both a candidate for surplusing and recreation development, though specific plans have not materialized for either action.
“We have no plans right now for the property,” said Meryl Lipman, a communications consultant for Washington State Parks. “Those trails are going to be exactly as-is for years to come. We are not pursuing anything right now. We would be years away from accepting any proposals or seeking any proposals.”
In 2006, the agency told The Chronicle that there was a “50-50” chance of the land being turned into a full-fledged state park within the next 6 years — which could have included campsites, cabins and yurts. That development was dependent on funding from the Legislature, which evidently didn’t materialize. At present, a pair of dilapidated picnic tables mark the only construction on the property.
The Packwood property was found in 2009 to be inconsistent with the agency’s Centennial 2013 Vision, and designated as “appropriate” for transfer or exchange — with the goal of preserving it as open space. In 2015, it was listed as a candidate for Recreation Business Activity, in which private contractors can pursue development on state land, such as cabins, picnic facilities, food services and RV parks.
Neither the sell-off or development options have gained traction, Lipman said, and she noted that either case would involve a long process of environmental review and public hearings. A surplus sale would require a vote by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. Lipman also noted that transferring the land to another public agency — instead of selling it on the market — would include a clause designating it for continued recreational use.
For his part, Serrahn said he doesn’t have a strong preference between the status quo and developed facilities with a maintained trail system.
“I’d just like to see it stay in the public domain,” he said. “I would like people 30 years from now to be able to walk along Skate Creek without walking on private land. … I think it’s really important to society to have open space.”