Politics & Government

Trails, campgrounds at risk in '10

More than 20 trail systems and campgrounds operated statewide by the state Department of Natural Resources would close in March under Gov. Chris Gregoire's supplemental budget.

Included on the hit list are two popular recreation areas in South Sound – the McLane Creek Nature Trail in Capitol Forest and the Mima Mounds Interpretive Center near Littlerock. An estimated 15,000 people visit the sites each year.

Also on the chopping block are popular DNR hiking trails in King County, including the Mount Si and Little Si trailheads, which receive combined visits from more than 500,000 people per year, estimates show.

Outdoor recreation groups will lobby the 2010 Legislature when it convenes today in Olympia to find the $276,000 in general fund money necessary to keep the trails and recreation areas open.

“Losing public access to these areas for even a season would be a disaster,” said Jonathan Guzzo, advocacy director for the Washington Trails Association. “These are important family outdoor getaways close to urban areas.”

In tough economic times such as these, people can’t afford to travel far for recreation, making the sites even more attractive and critical, he said.

“Once the public sees this list of closures, they’ll demand action from their legislators,” predicted state Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, the chairman of the Senate’s Natural Resources, Oceans and Recreation Committee.

The DNR’s recreation program, already feeling the effects of a 50 percent budget cut last year, will run out of general-fund money in late March, said Mark Mauren, a DNR assistant division manager assigned to recreation.

General-fund money pays for things such as trail maintenance; replacing vandalized and worn-out signs, picnic tables and corrals; pumping outhouses; and training volunteers.

In the short term, DNR would need an infusion of general-fund money to keep the trails and camps open, Mauren said.

In the long run, DNR wants to turn to user fees to help finance its recreation programs. User fees have the support of a diverse base of user groups who recently completed their work as the Sustainable Recreation Work Group, which was formed by the 2008 state Legislature to make recommendations for future recreation on DNR-managed land.

A bill to be introduced in the House and the Senate this session would:

 • Grant the DNR authority to charge fees for use of certain recreation sites and events hosted on DNR lands.

 • Direct the DNR, state Parks and Recreation and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to explore creating a single pass allowing access to lands managed by the three state agencies.

 • Allow private concessionaires to try two pilot projects at DNR recreation sites – one in Western Washington and one in Eastern Washington.

 • Grant the DNR immunity from recreation-related lawsuits, something state Parks and Fish and Wildlife have already.

“I think the bill has a chance,” Jacobsen said, noting that the dire economic times have legislators looking at many options to generate revenue.

The specter of public-access closures at McLane Creek and Mima Mounds didn’t sit well with South Sound outdoor enthusiasts and conservation groups.

“McLane is always our default place when we want to go for a quick walk with the kids,” said Erica Guttman, coordinator of the Native Plant Salvage Project for Thurston County WSU Extension.

Guttman also uses McLane Creek for winter and summer plant-identification classes.

“It has such an amazing diversity of plants,” she said of the 1.1-mile looped trail past ponds, McLane Creek, wetlands and forests.

The Mima Mounds preserve, which includes 5 miles of trails for self-guided tours, also is a popular, year-round destination. The unique prairie environment has uniform mounds of unknown origin.

“For a lot of people, it their first introduction to a prairie ecosystem,” said The Nature Conservancy’s Eric Delvin.

Statewide, the DNR manages some 2.2 million acres of multiple-use forestland, home to not just timber-harvesting activities but also some 1,100 miles of trails and 143 recreation sites, as well as a wide variety of protected landscapes.

“DNR lands are becoming a major source of recreation close to urban areas,” Jacobsen said.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444