Question of 175-Acre Packwood Park Revived

Plans: County Ownership Could Be Pricey, But Support Expressed for Taking On Skate Creek

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After a pandemic-induced pause, discussions around the fate of a forested Packwood gem have been revived.

The 175 acres of state-owned land around Skate Creek hosts wildlife, nearly 4 miles of trails and direct public access to the Cowlitz River — “which is almost nonexistent now,” according to Friends of Skate Creek President Bill Serrahn.

This week, Lewis County commissioners again discussed whether they want to take ownership of the property as they wait to see if Washington State Parks will surplus the land.

“The only thing I’m going to say is that I’ve been on this for almost three years now. So we’re going to have to make a decision one way or another,” said Commissioner Gary Stamper, whose eastside district includes the park.

In years prior, Friends of Skate Creek Park was skeptical of the potential land transfer, wary that the county would let the land be logged, privatized or developed. But now, Serrahn — the unofficial caretaker of the park — says things have changed.

The nonprofit will “embrace” Lewis County as the title holder, and even continue performing some maintenance, as long as some long-term guarantees are made.

“We like it the way it is,” Serrahn told The Chronicle, adding that a through-road or large campground would not be welcomed.

Washington State Parks acquired the land in the 1990s, although it’s still not an official park. Instead, the property “remains an orphan in the inventory of lands owned by Washington State Parks,” according to the Packwood Visitor Center.

A decade ago, the agency said the land would be “appropriate for surplus/exchange.”

The county already signaled their interest in acquiring the property. And while Washington State Parks is still looking to surplus it, it “isn’t a high priority,” according to spokeswoman Anna Gill.

“We don’t have any timelines, but our next step is to work with the county on a process to determine what their plan for the property would be,” Gill said in an email.

Serrahn thinks at least Stamper is “on board with our vision of the park,” which includes a day-use area with bathrooms, picnic tables or a shelter, a larger parking lot and potentially an accessible trail loop along the creek. Grants for those projects may be easier to obtain if Lewis County holds the title.

On Monday, Stamper was agreeable to the idea of keeping the park open to the public.

“Now, 10 years ago I don’t know if I would’ve said the same thing,” Stamper remarked.

But in 2021, he says the land could be used as some sort of carbon credit — kept natural as a strategic move for the county’s timber industry.

But his colleagues — commissioners Lindsey Pollock and Sean Swope — have concerns. Serrahn estimated the county would have to spend around $10,000 annually on the park, mostly for arborist work. The county’s total budget for parks, however, sits at just around $65,000, according to County Manager Erik Martin.

Swope said keeping the land in the hands of the state would be ideal. But if the park was surplused, the county “would want to preserve it for us to use for generations to come.”

“And I think that is what’s been echoed from us, is that we do want to make sure we preserve that,” he said. “If they’re going to surplus it, we don’t want it potentially going to a developer’s hands and have them doing whatever they want with it.”

When asked if he’d be willing to increase the county’s parks budget, Swope said that would need to be discussed internally.

Pollock raised budgetary concerns, saying the county shouldn’t get into a situation where a recession hits “and then we don’t have the funds to adequately manage it.”

But Stamper expressed a willingness to add funds to the county’s park system. To Serrahn, that limited budget is a bigger indicator of how the county thinks about its parks.

“Lewis County only has 78 acres of parks, and about a $65,000 budget for parks. So I’d say that’s not a priority whatsoever,” he told The Chronicle. “So without really caring about parks, why would we want them to have it?”

 

 

 

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Bill Serrahn

The article may be a bit confusing to people not familiar with the history of this park and our community's effort to save it. It stems from my attendance at the County Manager's Meeting with commissioners on Monday, where I gave Friends of Skate Creek Park's position and our three commissioners and our county manager discussed it.

Our position is, regardless of the titleholder, we want the park preserved as a natural area with no internal development of roads or campgrounds and no commercial forestry. We envision improving the entrance at the Craig Road Bridge with a parking lot, vault toilets, a picnic shelter, and more tables at some point in the future. That would require a grant. I threw out a $10k annual budget estimate for Lewis County mainly for arborist work around the borders and with danger trees. It probably would not be that much and Friends of Skate Creek Park is willing to manage and maintain the park according to an MOU agreement with Lewis County.

The problem with Lewis County is they didn't get into it because they wanted this park. They got into it because a couple of influential officers on the Board of the now defunct Destination Packwood Association (DPA) wanted it. At the time DPA was in deep IRS and financial problems but weren't disclosing any of their problems to their general membership or the community. They initiated all of this through the good offices of Rep. Ed Orcutt, who I'm sure was in the dark about DPA's financial crises as was State Parks. Lewis County passively went along, but it is interesting that they never sent State Parks the requested letter of intent at that time.

DPA had sold the public Warnke Wildlife Viewing Park when they had prior financial and IRS problems in 2014 and the IRS had put a lien on their park, so their motives for wanting to get this park to Lewis County and leasing it back were suspect. DPA had, at one point, ask State Parks to deed the property to them, but Parks couldn't do that.

Many of us in the community were frightened by this and the fact that State Parks initially "forgot" to schedule a community meeting until we began calling the Parks Commissioners. We turned out to oppose the transfer in May of 2019 and it was stricken from State Parks Commission meeting agenda after that. It was stricken mainly because State Parks was in violation of RCW in the time frame for scheduling public meetings.

So why does Lewis County want this park when parks are obviously not a priority to them and they only have 78 acres of county parks and a $65k annual budget for them? When I walked the park with former commissioner Edna Fund, I ask her that question. Her first answer was that "constituents brought it to them", but she really didn't have an answer why Lewis County actually wanted it.

The stated reason that Lewis County says they will accept a transfer of this park from State Parks is now, according to County Manager Erik Martin, "to keep it in the public domain". From my conversations with Commissioner Gary Stamper I believe he now shares our vision of acquiring the park and guaranteeing it's future as a natural area.

The reason that I gave this a little push is that we either need to move forward with State Parks or Lewis County and if Lewis County really doesn't want another park, they need to withdraw their letter of intent, so we can all move on. This is what commissioners are considering. Do they want to leave county parks languish as they have for years or do they want to put a new emphasis on parks and acquisition of a new park and perhaps even and open space / green space initiative for the county? We do now have a new County Parks Manager and she would have input into those decisions also.

A lot has changed since 2019, when State Parks decided that this property was inconsistent for developing a full camping park with other amenities usually found in State Parks. Packwood currently is experiencing a visitor boom economy. Houses are being built and homes are being sold at record prices. Skate Creek Park is now one of the top natural attractions in the Packwood area for residents and visitors alike. This once unsigned and mostly unknown property is now very popular and an important asset to our community.

State Parks does have day parks, primarily on the Puget Sound. They normally have hiking trails and are on the water. Our park has hiking/biking trails and has water features with Lower Skate Creek and the Cowlitz River running trough it. State Parks is currently underrepresented in Upper Cowlitz valley. We believe that our Skate Creek Park could be a State Parks Day Park and State Parks should consider that opportunity.

So what's next? I don't think there is a question of whether this park will remain in the public domain or not regardless if Lewis County drops out. We have way too much community support now for anything bad to happen. We Friends of Skate Creek Park await Lewis County's decision and we will continue the dialog with them and State Parks. State Parks has a new director and growing number of people who are now aware of Skate Creek Park and want to keep it.

Thursday, June 24
Bill Serrahn

"A lot has changed since 2019, when State Parks decided" s/b "A lot has changed since 2010, when State Parks decided"

Friday, June 25