An agreement currently being drafted between Washington State Parks and Lewis County would set the table for a deed exchange on a 180-acre Packwood area property after the state failed for more than two decades to establish a state park on the land.
This gem — beloved by many locals — sits largely untouched, straddling the Cowlitz River near Packwood. The Packwood Visitor Center characterizes the property as an “orphan in the inventory of lands owned by Washington State Parks.” It remains largely undeveloped for outdoor recreation.
Connie Riker, director of Lewis County Parks and Recreation and Events, said a memorandum of understanding (MOU) stipulating the deed transfer could come before the Board of Lewis County Commissioners as soon as next week, though it’s more likely sometime next month.
Discussions in recent years have focused on a possible sale between the two governments, but this deed transfer would allow Lewis County rights to the land on the condition it’s used for recreational purposes only during the life of its ownership, Riker told The Chronicle.
“Once we have it in our possession, it will convert to a county park and it will go through the process of community input,” she said.
The memorandum is also expected to detail the county’s formalized interest in the park, implement it into its parks plan and would also list it as an asset in the Packwood subarea plan, which is currently being developed.
With more than 164 acres — including the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds — already in its inventory, this single property would double the acreage Lewis County Parks and Recreation would have to maintain. Fiscal questions have previously been raised, too, with the county department’s budget at only about $65,000, which includes park maintenance, though that does not include the separate fairgrounds budget.
“Part of the financial impact in regards to parks in general is making sure we have access to the funds to be able to maintain them. So, the fact that the state is willing to grant us this park is fantastic, but they want some assurance that we’ll be able to maintain that park. That’s a big element of this,” Riker said, adding that she feels her department can maintain the park.
Though parks are only open Memorial Day to Labor Day, Lewis County is pushing to make investments to keep them open longer and improve their facilities. Riker said it’s likely they’ll open earlier this upcoming season than they have in years’ past with more money in their budget.
The state agency originally came into possession of the land back in the 1990s, according to previous Chronicle reports.
In 2006, Washington State Parks told The Chronicle there was a “50-50” chance of the land being turned into a full-fledged state park by 2012, but those dreams slowly dissipated as funding through the Legislature was never realized. State Parks originally envisioned including campsites, cabins and yurts at the location, but that scope fell apart over the years.
Riker said the county currently doesn’t have a use plan established as to what amenities or recreational opportunities would be available, but she noted the county intends to keep the land as natural as possible.
But that has some people worried and skeptical.
Bill Serrahn, president of nonprofit Friends of Skate Creek and also the park’s de facto caretaker, said he would rather see the state retain the land than the county take possession without any plan.
“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,” he said.
He wants to see the land completely undeveloped and left in pristine condition. He mentioned the Seminary Hill Natural Area as a possible model to follow.
Serrahn also said he feels like they’ve been stuck at square one on this project for many years, fighting back and forth between the county and the state. With the decision that’s being considered, Serrahn said they were gearing up for a “prolonged fight” and that he would “take it as far as we have to.”
The park, he said, was just a relative secret a few years ago.
“Ownership doesn’t mean anything for us, it’s about what’s done with the land. Whoever’s going to keep the land in its natural state is who we’ll support. We don’t want a campground here,” said Sarah Schmidt, former president of nonprofit Packwood Trail Project.
She noted the nonprofit she’s involved with doesn’t hold an official stance on which government owns the land. When The Chronicle reached out to Serrahn for comment on this story, he was out with Schmidt on one of his daily walks along the Skate Creek Trail.
“It would be nice if Lewis County could see the wisdom in saving a natural area,” Serrahn said.
“In its current state, it’s a great natural asset. Development would wreck that.”
If the MOU is approved by county commissioners, it will go back to the State Parks board for approval, Riker said. From there, the transaction will be presented to Gov. Jay Inslee for final say.
County commissioners had previously voiced concern around the fiscal cost of maintenance were the park to fall into Lewis County’s hands, though little discussion was had on the topic during a Wednesday morning meeting. Commissioner Lee Grose did not return calls Tuesday inquiring about the park.