Following a strong showing of public concern, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission opted Thursday not to hold a scheduled vote on authorizing staff to transfer 175 acres of the agency’s property in Packwood to Lewis County.
The land, a mostly forgotten and “passively open” swath of forest at the confluence of Skate Creek and the Cowlitz River, had been the subject of recent discussions of a possible transfer to Lewis County — with talk of putting in a campground.
Monday, the agency held a meeting in Packwood ahead of its planned transfer vote Thursday in Klickitat. According to Diane Nelson, a Packwood resident who has helped lead opposition to the transfer process, close to 70 locals showed up, most to speak in opposition to the transfer. Nelson said there was consensus that the move was happening too fast, with little public input or detail about what would happen with the property.
At the commission meeting Thursday, State Parks acknowledged that concern.
“That was a mistake on our park,” said State Parks communications director Virginia Painter. “(Commissioners) didn’t act on it yesterday. What they decided is that they want to go ahead and have a hearing with the right amount of public notice, and then bring it back to the commissioners.”
Nelson applauded the agency for responding to residents’ opposition.
“The state listened and heard the complaints,” she said. “They thought it was too soon to move on something that there was too much conflict. The stakeholders needed to have more time to come together and work out the differences.”
Painter said the hearing on the transfer has not yet been scheduled, but she would “imagine” it would be held in Packwood. The commission’s next scheduled meeting is in July in Bremerton. The vote would not have moved the land out of the state domain, but simply authorized staff to execute a transfer in the future to Lewis County. The county has not yet determined if it would accept the transfer.
“I’m actually kind of surprised to hear that they did pull it (from the agenda),” said Lewis County Public Works director Josh Metcalf. “The county hasn’t made a decision yet, and I don’t know that we’re that close to making a decision. We’re still early in the process.”
Metcalf said some of the backlash might have been over misconceptions that the transfer authorization would have led to immediate development. While the county could decide to take the land without notice, Metcalf said it would make no changes to the property without public meetings.
If transferred, the county would be required by the state to reserve it for recreational use in perpetuity. At present, the land features no development beyond a ramshackle picnic table and about three miles of trails. Destination Packwood has been a leading voice in the transfer discussions and would likely take charge of operations if the county was to own the land. Lee Grose, a board member for the nonprofit, has said the group would “probably” put a campground on about 30 acres of the land and leave the rest as-is.
Destination Packwood issued a statement in response to a request for comment: “We were not involved in their decision to make an agenda change, so we encourage you to contact state officials for more information on their process.”
The opposition to the transfer vote that was on the table came in many forms. Some simply objected to the rushed process and wanted more public involvement. Others wanted the parties to present a detailed plan about what would happen to the land if it were transferred to Lewis County. Some wanted to restrict development altogether.
Bill Serrahn, who lives adjacent to the park and has become its unofficial caretaker, said he wants to ensure the land stays in the public domain, remains undeveloped and is given specific deed restrictions that offer more protection than the “recreation” requirement.
“I believe State Parks wisely dropped the item from their Klickitat meeting agenda after hearing the Packwood community’s nearly unanimous opposition to Destination Packwood’s intention to develop a campground on the property,” he wrote in an email. “The transfer to Lewis County could be a good option but we all need to step back and take the time needed to guarantee this land is protected for future generations of humans and wildlife.”
According to Serrahn and Nelson, State Parks and Destination Packwood threatened during the Monday meeting that preventing a transfer to Lewis County could lead the land to be turned over to the Department of Natural Resources, to be logged or sold to developers.
Now, though, Nelson believes locals have the agency’s ear. She’s hopeful that proponents and opponents of the transfer can sit down, along with county leaders, to find areas of agreement they can present to State Parks.
“There was just too much conflict to try to rush it through,” she said. “I really think State Parks just did not think it through, but there’s decent communication now with State Parks. I’m satisfied, and I’m encouraged.”