Brian Mittge Commentary: Cooperation, Friendship Key to Preserving Packwood’s Park


It’s been many years since I’ve walked the trails of what folks in Packwood call “Skate Creek Park,” but I clearly remember the natural beauty in that hidden corner of east Lewis County.

The Washington State Park system owns the 180-acre property. For decades, park officials had hoped to turn it into a full-scale campground, but the money hasn’t been there to do so.

Locals have enjoyed the fact that the property has remained undeveloped. Its network of quiet trails are a community treasure that many feel would be imperiled by development.

Now, according to a story this week by Chronicle reporter Eric Rosane, the state park system is ready to transfer ownership to Lewis County to use for recreational purposes.

This acquisition would more than double the amount of parks and recreation land under Lewis County’s ownership. Folks on all sides have some questions about whether there is funding to maintain and oversee the county’s park properties.

On top of that, the nonprofit Friends of Skate Creek Park group in Packwood worries that Lewis County could develop or log part of the property.

“You can put a Ferris wheel in the park and call it recreation. It’s just a broad category. It doesn’t give you any protection,” said Bill Serrahn, president of the group. He said they’re gearing up for a “prolonged fight” to keep the park as an undeveloped natural area.

He mentioned the Seminary Hill Natural Area in Centralia as a possible model they’d like to follow.

That caught my attention, since one of the hats I wear is president of the Friends of the Seminary Hill Natural Area. I appreciate his comparison and it got me thinking.

Our group was also formed during a time of great worry about the potential loss of a forested jewel.

In the late 1970s, the mature forest on Seminary Hill was owned by the Centralia’s water department. Locals used and loved its trails, but rumors began to swirl that it was to be logged as a way to help fund city utilities.

Two Girl Scout leaders, Stellajoe Staebler and Chloe Palmer, jumped into action. They formed the Friends of the Seminary Hill Natural Area, whose purpose was to seek establishment and protection of their beloved forest.

Notably, the group’s first president was Stellajoe’s husband, George Staebler, head of the Weyerhaeuser research center in downtown Centralia. He brought a timber company’s credibility to the project and was a great partner for Stellajoe’s activism.

They held a press conference on May 14, 1980 under the park’s tall Douglas fir trees and announced a petition drive to urge the three-person Centralia City Commission to protect their property by formal city ordinance.

The signature drive encountered a bit of a setback when Mount St. Helens erupted four days later, but these women were not to be deterred.

They collected thousands of signatures, presenting them to the City Commission. Two years after that press conference, on March 17, 1982, Centralia established the city’s first natural area.

Forty years later, it’s still going strong.

Key to its success is an ongoing partnership between the city and our friends group. We each have responsibilities and abilities that complement one another.

The city has equipment and enforcement power. They provide us with a Port-a-Potty, with bark and gravel, with staff who open the parking lot gate each morning and shut it each night.

Our Friends group offers free labor and enthusiasm. We hold several work parties each year to maintain trails and cut back invasive weeds. We organize free educational events each year to bring people to the hill and help them fall in love with it.

Our friends group has a strong, appreciative relationship for the support given to us by the City of Centralia, and we hear regularly from the city that they depend on our volunteer support to keep this huge chunk of land in good condition for the public to enjoy.

Neither of us could do it without the other.

So what lessons might there be for the good people of Packwood as they look to preserve their beloved Skate Creek Park?

First, that a sense of crisis and threat of loss can be useful.

It took an imminent fear that our hillside would be logged to create our group. While we no longer worry today about it being logged, we know that its quality of place needs constant vigilance to be preserved. That spirit of urgency continues to animate our group.

It seems that the folks in Packwood have this same concern. It can be a great way to motivate action.

Secondly, we built partnerships.

It’s always a little antagonistic to hold a signature drive, but in this case it wasn’t done so much to try to overturn or bully the City Commission, but was instead done as a way to show the public’s support — and, I suppose, to prove the staying power of this new Friends group. Would we be an energetic and dependable ongoing partner to help the city take on management of a 70-acre natural area? Collecting 2,000 signature during a volcanic eruption was a good sign that we would.

I don’t know the personalities involved, but I’d encourage the Friends of Skate Creek Park to present themselves as problem-solvers.

It sounds like everyone wants to preserve, protect and enhance their forest. It’s beyond the power of any governmental agency or single citizen group to do that alone — but the right kind of partnership, built on mutual strengths and trust, just might be able to.

I would encourage the Friends group in Packwood to collect in-person signatures (in addition to an email signature campaign they are encouraging in their Facebook group.) If their group doesn’t have an in-person meeting, they should do so. The pandemic is an obstacle, but Centrialia’s Friends group successfully overcame a volcanic eruption.

The best possible outcome would see a vibrant, diverse group in Packwood offering their services as a good-fitting partnership with Lewis County (or state parks) to support their beloved forest being kept in a natural state, open to and enjoyed by all, for generations to come. 


Brian Mittge is grateful for all the friends and workers who allow us to have so many good things in Lewis County and our world. Drop him a line at

Annual Meeting of Friends of the Seminary Hill Natural Area to be Held Feb. 12

The group that preserves and protects Centralia’s Seminary Hill Natural Area will be holding its annual meeting in two parts on Saturday, Feb. 12.

All are invited to a Zoom meeting at 10 a.m. (Login at

An outdoor social event will be held at 1 p.m. at the Seminary Hill Natural Area.

Email to learn more.