Time always brings change, but 40 years after its founding, the mission of Northwest Trek Wildlife Park remains consistent.
Moose, bison, bighorn sheep, caribou, mountain goats and more still make their home on the 725 fenced-in acres near Eatonville. Trams still glide along a 5-mile loop so visitors can see native Northwest and Alaskan animals interact within arm’s reach.
It’s that experience, that connection to nature, the wildlife park aims to conserve.
“Although it’s a great family experience, we want to create an appreciation of local wildlife,” said Alan Varsik, who took over as deputy director five months ago. “Trek is more culturally relevant now than it was 40 years ago.”
The park celebrated 40 years on Friday (July 17).
Festivities included special treats for the animals in the shape of birthday cakes, games for visitors and photo opportunities with Footloose the Moose, the mascot.
Northwest Trek opened to the public July 17, 1975, as a 537-acre gift from David “Doc” Hellyer and his wife Connie. It was valued then at $3 million to $5 million.
Instead of a ribbon cutting, then-Gov. Dan Evans ran a chain saw through an alder log to welcome guests. Records show 11,000 people visited within the first 11 days and took the 50-minute tour on four propane-powered trams.
The idea of protecting wilderness wasn’t prominent in the Hellyers’ minds when they bought the land in 1937 for $450. At that point it was a charred mass of stumps with a little brown lake, having been logged in 1921 and burned in 1925.
The Hellyers built a log cabin and raised their three daughters overlooking Horseshoe Lake. Doc Hellyer continued to work in Tacoma as a pediatrician and help on his ranch.
“It is difficult to say at what exact moment the concept of a wilderness wildlife park emerged,” Hellyer wrote in an account of Northwest Trek, “but more and more we realized as a family that once devastated land had been transformed by time, forest management, and husbandry into an ecologically balanced microcosm of habitats for North American big game, and we had some experience of its carrying capacity.”
The acreage increased, animals moved in and the 1893 homestead was fixed up. The Hellyers didn’t want to leave, but they didn’t want to see the land change. The daughters, who grew up and moved out, were not interested in taking over as farmers and operators of a wildlife preserve.
“And yet none of us could contemplate the time when developers would be the alternative — and so we decided that in order to share our good fortunate and preserve our wilderness we should offer the property to some governmental agency farsighted or bold enough to accept the challenge,” Doc Hellyer wrote.
The family approached Pierce County commissioners first but there was hesitation about Doc Hellyer’s vision of a free-roaming area where animals of different species would live together.
The Hellyers conducted a feasibility study. The County Commission still hesitated, so the family decided to give the idea a go.
They sold their cattle, tore down the barbed wire fence and put in a stronger fence around 400 acres. The Zoological Society helped the Hellyers bring in the first animals. The result was clear: a free-roaming area could work.
On Aug. 23, 1971, the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma accepted the wildlife park with several conditions attached, including allowing the Hellyers to continue living in their log cabin.
A bond measure in February 1973 failed but in November 1973, after much campaigning by the newly formed Friends of Northwest Trek, 61.2 percent of voters approved a $2.5 million bond for Northwest Trek.
“The point was, it needed to be shared,” Connie Hellyer told The News Tribune in 2011. “It deserved to be shared.”
The couple remained deeply involved with the park for most of their lives, Doc Hellyer as an adviser and Connie Hellyer as a volunteer. They didn’t always agree on the direction the wildlife park should go, though.
In 2005, Doc Hellyer and the Northwest Trek Foundation sued the park district, contending it wasn’t following conditions attached to the donated land and asking for it back.
The lawsuit was dropped after Doc Hellyer died in 2006 at age 92. Connie Hellyer died in 2012 at age 97.
Park officials say Northwest Trek remains committed to its mission of conservation, which is why it participated in projects to help save pygmy rabbits and Oregon-spotted frogs.
Visitors must agree since 6.5 million people have walked through the gates since the park first opened.
It’s grown over the years to 725 acres thanks to the park district adding property to buffer the core roaming area.
The animal propagation program is healthy and includes more than 200 from 40 species. Bond money has gone toward expanding exhibits for bears, wolves and foxes, as well as building a visitor center and refurbishing trams.
The next big project is Kids’ Trek, a half-acre, nature-themed play area with rock climbing walls, a cascading stream and a tree trunk climbing structure. The $1.9 million play area is to open next spring.
Park officials are talking about building a bridge to the Hellyer Natural History Center to allow visitors a chance to browse the Hellyers’ old two-story home. The house is in the free-roaming area and is now seen only by those who rent the facility for an event.
Connie Hellyer, the couple’s oldest daughter, has fond memories of the land she grew up on before it became a wildlife park. She said she’s pleased to see it continue to grow.
“It’s fulfilling my parents’ dream,” said Connie Hellyer, now 78. “It was our family’s happy place. I’m delighted to see it become a happy place for children and families all across the Northwest.”
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653
Milestones at Northwest Trek
1971 David “Doc” and Connie Hellyer donate 537 acres to Metro Parks Tacoma.
1973 Tacoma voters approve a $2.5 million bond issue to create the wildlife park.
1975 Northwest Trek Wildlife Park opens to the public.
1989 Cheney Family Discovery Center opens.
1999 The Hellyers’ former home is converted into the Hellyer Natural History Center.
2000 Life-sized bronze moose sculpture is installed outside the front gate.
2001 Northwest Trek participates with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a birth control study to help the federal government more effectively manage bison herds in Yellowstone National Park.
2005 Metro Parks buys 100 acres bordering the northern end of park, protecting the tram route from residential encroachment.
2013 Northwest Trek and its partners are awarded the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ North American Conservation Award for their work in the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit reintroduction project
Source: Northwest Trek Wildlife Park
If you go
Hours: Daily, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Address: 11610 Trek Drive East, Eatonville