An ongoing challenge with managing the Olympia Woodland Trail is the proliferation of debris and illegal campsites.
The city’s parks department has identified the trail as one of its most “challenging” properties, along with the Olympia Center, Percival Landing, Yauger Park and the Artesian Commons. The parks typically attract a lot of users as well as unwanted behaviors and hazardous waste.
Olympia’s Parks Department has high hopes for improving safety and cleanliness across the board in 2017. Part of the optimism is linked to the recently voter-approved Metropolitan Parks District, which will generate about $3 million a year just for parks starting in 2017.
Some of that money will go toward expanding the department’s ranger program. The goal is to have someone patrolling 40 hours a week, said parks director Paul Simmons. At this time, the department is able to dedicate eight hours a week for proactive patrolling of all parks, he said.
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“Our park ranger manages enforcement and all volunteer programs and environmental education,” Simmons said of Olympia Park Ranger Sylvia Niehuser’s workload. “She and her staff are spread pretty wide.”
Park safety has been a long-running concern for the public as well as city staff. The department’s Safe and Secure Parks Initiative was started in 2013 to improve safety policies and procedures for staff. The effort was spurred by hazards involving needles and drug debris at parks alongside occasional threats from park users.
The initiative has led to improvements such as containers for needle disposal and increased security at The Olympia Center.
“We’ve done quite a bit of work,” Simmons said.
In the past, the city evicted campers along the Olympia Woodland Trail, which starts at the intersection of Eastside Street and Wheeler Avenue and runs 2.5 miles to the Chehalis Western Trail.
Four times a year, code enforcement officers and police notify campers that they are trespassing and need to leave within 48 to 72 hours. The city then assigns a probation work crew to clean up the sites.
That said, code enforcement staff cite a lack of time and manpower to regularly address the campsites and related code violations. The city reports that vacated camps are usually re-occupied, sometimes by the same people.
Enforcement is tricky along the trail because only some of the land beyond the buffer is owned by the city. Other nearby parcels belong to the county or to private owners who are ultimately responsible for maintenance.
In that regard, some relief came in December when the city accepted a donation of 2.39 acres just east of the Eastside Street trailhead. Part of the annual maintenance cost for that parcel — about $1,410 — includes monitoring encampments and cleaning up debris.
Other concerns about trail safety have been influenced by crimes, including sexual assault and harassment. About 35 percent of respondents in a 2015 survey said there are parks where they do not feel safe, including the Woodland Trail.
Olympia resident Jim Rainwood has undertaken his own effort to clean up the Olympia Woodland Trail. Rainwood has a special connection with the trail because he and his wife, Carol, helped lead the effort to create the trail in the 1990s.
Since 2013, Rainwood has been compiling monthly reports with photographs of campsites and debris along the trail’s offshoots. He submits the findings to the city and posts them on his YouTube channel. Rainwood rarely encounters campers during his hikes, but when he does, he hands out trash bags and information about shelters.
At his most recent expedition Jan. 7, he counted seven campsites and seven debris sites. That number is lower than November’s count of 14 campsites.
Rainwood made plans to head out this weekend with a counselor from SideWalk, a program that finds housing for the homeless.
“This month, I’ll try my hand at recording short interviews if we meet anyone at the camps,” Rainwood told the Olympian. “I’m curious to hear their take on what they need to get out of the woods.”