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?”