Newparks head setting sights on the future

Published on Thu, Feb 10, 2005 by ack Kintner

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New parks head setting sights on the future

By Jack Kintner

Mike McFarlane is a cheesehead and proud of it. No, that’s not a mis-print revealing a sordid epithet, it just means he’s a Green Bay Packers fan. McFarlane grew up in the shadow of Curly Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in those days not much bigger than Bellingham is today, with neighbors like Zeke Bratkowski, Boyd Dowler and quarterback Bart Starr.

McFarlane later ran the Brown County parks system that owns the football stadium and rents it to the Packers. Last year, at the age of 49, McFarlane was recruited out of Wisconsin to become the third director of Whatcom County Parks and Recreation, and has been asked by county executive Pete Kremen to identify both the system’s future needs and ways of funding them.

To that end he’s organized a series of workshops and open house style meetings this month and next at locations all over the county to gather information and opinions from park users, and then in the fall will repeat the process to review plans the staff will develop based on the information gathered in the first series of meetings. The nearest one to Blaine will take place next Wednesday, February 16, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Birch Bay fire station at 4581 Birch Bay-Lynden Road.

McFarlane said part of the impetus to do this comes from increasing development pressure throughout the county, making the county parks system compete with developers for park suitable land. But he also felt that the county parks system is, after 40 years, ready to take a breath and look at itself and its future. “The idea is to identify community needs and prioritize them,” McFarlane said, “and then also look at ways of paying for our solutions to those needs.”

Originally called Whatcom County Parks, the independent agency began with a 39-acre parcel on Lake Samish, south of Bellingham. That has developed into a nationally acclaimed 5,500 acre system that includes an almost baffling array of facilities and programs. There are eight major parks, eight senior centers, six extensive trail systems, a summer camp, a rifle range, a horse farm, a separate horse camp, a fragrance garden, an old home, a homestead, a high mountain lake with an extensive old-growth community forest and the latest acquisition, a 35-acre nature reserve near Lake Whatcom.

Not only that, but it’s now known as Whatcom County Parks and Recreation since being absorbed into the structure of county government. The 33 permanent and full-time park staff are augmented in the summer with part-time personnel who lead an exhaustive array of outdoor programs that travel all over the northwest and indoor classes in everything from cooking and dog obedience to music playing and etching glass.

There was even a nude beach in the system several years ago, but (as the story goes) when Bellingham city transit put a “Teddy Bear Cove” sign on the Fairhaven bus that ran past every hour, the jig was up and the beach was soon closed to nudity.

The true story reveals something about the way the parks system has tried to remain responsive to county residents. Located near the north end of Chuckanut Drive, the property features an unusual and very secluded warm-water swimming beach at the base of a sandstone outcropping in Chuckanut Bay. Traditionally the county’s most popular skinny-dipping beach (and it has some stiff competition) for over a century, it went co-ed in the ’60s, and on hot spring and summer days for nearly 20 years the place would get jammed with sun lovers packed together like a rack of kielbasa sizzling on the griddle. People would come in sailboats and anchor offshore, not to gawk (one of the only ways to be politically incorrect in the ’60s) but to join in the fun.

In the ’80s it was put up for sale by the absentee owner and when no one stepped forward the county bought it in order to keep it open and supervised as a recreation site. And though wags often put a “Teddy Bear Cove” sign in bus windows, county parks made the sunbathers knock off the Adam and Eve routine as a condition of purchase.

Due to a combination of factors the cove is still bathwater warm on hot days, and the encircling rocks still keep the wind off your back. Wearing a suit’s a small price to pay to keep a facility like this in public hands, and as with the old-growth forest around Canyon Lake, public access is what McFarlane’s parks system is all about. “This wonderful county should be enjoyed by everyone,” he said, and meant it.

Developed facilities in Blaine and Birch Bay include the Sunset Equestrian Center on Blaine Road, Bay Horizon County Park and youth hostel at the former U.S. Air Force radar station off Alderson Road in Birch Bay, and Semiahmoo County Park and museum, which occupies much of Semiahmoo Spit west of the resort complex.

A parks system with 5,500 acres, an area roughly the size of Lake Whatcom, may seem extensive but it amounts to only .4 percent of the land in Whatcom County, which is roughly 1.4 million acres in size. To get an idea of how big the county is from west to east, take a drive from Lighthouse Marine Park in Point Roberts to the Mt. Baker ski area. Hop out of your car in the parking lot and you’re almost but still not quite halfway across. Or the next time you’re in Glacier, remind yourself that you’re not in the “east county” but actually close to its geographical center.

Of course, much of the land in the eastern half of Whatcom County lies within the North Cascade National Park. “But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t go there,” said McFarlane with a smile, “and share its use with a climbing class or a birding trip.”

McFarlane emphasized that his priority at this time is to get a good long-range plan together “since a lot hinges on that in acquiring matching funds and grants for development and acquisition, to preserve unique areas that stand in the path of rapid growth and secure others for the future as well, and of course there’s always on-going maintenance and up-keep in the face of rapid growth.”

McFarlane added that the “number one concern we’re hearing as these meetings unfold is that a lot of the open space and park areas and so on are rapidly succumbing to development pressures around them.”

McFarlane concluded by saying that a consensus of participants has identified three sites as appropriate for consideration as the area’s next park – an 1100-acre tract of land with a long saltwater beach west of the BP-Cherry Point refinery called West Cherry Point, the Lily Point area on the southeast corner of Point Roberts, and developing more of the Bay-to-Baker trail system.

McFarlane and his wife Susan live in Bellingham. One son, Shannon, 24, is a mechanic overseas with the First Armored Division, and graphic artist Ryan, 19, is headed to Whatcom Community College this fall.