Can Lake Sammamish State Park find a future, support in the community? | Part 2

BY CELESTE GRACEY FOR THE BELLEVUE REPORTER With declining facilities and a beach filled with weeds, Lake Sammamish State Park is now struggling to attract the picnickers and swimmers it once did. The solution isn’t just more money, he said. It’s in finding people willing to champion Lake Sammamish over the long haul.

Lake Sammamish State Park manager and Ranger Rich Benson says the park could use some help from groups

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on Lake Sammamish State Park. The first story explored the problems with the park.

Rolling his truck through ankle-deep puddles, the ranger turns toward the empty beach and passes by a 1950s picnic shelter. Mud clings to the hem of his green pants, but nothing quite sticks like the memory of his first summer at Lake Sammamish State Park

“It was nuts,” said Ranger Rich Benson, as thoughts of the Fourth of July in 1979 trapped a smile.

So many families brought fireworks, the rangers gave up on enforcing the ban and focused instead on making sure people were being safe.

The place was packed with people. It was among the glory years for both the ranger and the park.

With declining facilities and a beach filled with weeds, the Eastside’s aging gem is now struggling to attract the picnickers and swimmers it once did.

Few know Lake Sammamish more intimately than Benson, and, like most park rangers, few have worked harder to find money to keep the park going.

However, the solution isn’t just more money, he said. It’s in finding people willing to champion Lake Sammamish over the long haul.

While Benson has not been alone in his work, it takes a community to save a park.

Finding support

Similar to Lake Sammamish with its urban placement, Bridle Trails State Park struggled to keep its gates open for about 20 years.

One of Kirkland and Bellevue’s largest natural areas, the 482-acre park was on the verge of closure before its neighbors formed a foundation in 2002.

The group expects to pay for half of the park’s operating costs, about $30,000 yearly, for the next 30 years.

It’s a “primo” example of how park groups can partner with Washington state, said Ken Hite, president of the Bridle Trails Park Foundation.

The group also organizes community events like photography hikes, mushroom walks and school programs that challenge the park’s stereotype of being “just for horses.”

Its annual Party in the Park attracts about 2,000 people, most of whom don’t own horses.

Lake Sammamish could use something similar, said Ranger Benson, who manages both of the parks.

The closest the park came was a committee that spent several years working on a park improvement plan. The group stopped meeting after the first set of grant applications failed.

It’s been three years of silence since.

But Hite and others agree that a new “friends” group could rekindle local interest in the park – and keep it in the minds of state legislators.

Although the Issaquah Soccer Club has received support for play fields from Sen. Cheryl Pflug, few have asked about the picnic areas, she said.

“Most people understand when you have a $5 billion state deficit, it’s maybe not the time to be expecting that we’re going to be doing a whole lot of development,” she added.

Not everyone agrees.

While the recession makes money harder to find, it’s not an excuse, said Stacy Goodman, Issaquah’s newest council member, who plans to bring the ailing park to the city’s attention.

“There is money, because some money is being spent,” she said. “We need to open up the dialog.”

Her hope is to stir the pot, although she hasn’t decided on a specific plan.

What Goodman does know is that Lake Sammamish State Park used to be the first place she thought of when taking her kids on a picnic. Now it’s the last.

“We as a community,” she said, “need to reclaim the park.”

Mountains to Sound

A worker in black rain boots passed by the forlorn picnic areas with a pleasant smile. Her wheelbarrow pointed straight to the park’s wetlands.

A couple times per week, Mountain to Sound Greenway Trust posts a sandwich board inviting people to join a restoration project at Lake Sammamish Park.

Restoring the wetland areas, which make up 70 percent of the park, is one aspect of the park plan that has moved ahead.

It’s easier, because there is more grant money for environmental projects, said Peter Herzog, a state parks stewardship manager whose taken the park to heart.

The wetlands were once filled in by farmers, and then taken over by invasive plants, like blackberries. Today, it has one of the area’s largest heron rookeries.

Rough trails pass through open fields, which are tailored by a mix of native plants and towering deciduous trees.

While the horizon is defined by the Sammamish Plateau and a Microsoft complex, the park is a quiet retreat for a handful of visitors on a lunchtime walk.

“I’m a big natural person,” said Patti Hoyopatubbi as she took her dog Charlie on a walk.

Preserving natural areas not only helps to balance development east of Seattle, but it also helps to balance park use between swim beaches and green areas, Herzog said.

While the progress has been encouraging, the wetlands weren’t the main focus of the park plan.

The goal was to see people return to the place that was once a mecca for swimming on the Eastside, he said.

Discover Pass

Day-use parks like Lake Sammamish and Bridle Trails drive high attendance compared to their campground counterparts, but without a way to make money, they lose priority.

“Day use parks don’t get the same money camping parks get,” Benson said. Herzog agreed.

However, the focus could shift to day-use parks with a new user fee that the Legislature passed this spring.

Day-use visitors will now have to pay $10 to enter the park for a day or spend $30 for a Discover Pass that lasts all year.

Selling the passes is the only way the parks department will be able to pay for its $60 million budget.

So parks like Lake Sammamish, which have heavy use, but no campgrounds, will now be able to earn their merit as moneymakers.

The bill didn’t come without contention from lawmakers and park staff.

“We loathe to define ourselves by revenue. It’s about providing public service,” Herzog said.

There are also concerns for how it could drive down attendance numbers.

A yearlong parking fee experiment about five years ago took a heavy hit on Lake Sammamish’s attendance, Benson said.

Sen. Pflug voted against the bill, calling it an easy target for raising state revenue, because it can pass with a simple majority.

Chances are, she said, the money will eventually end up in the general fund instead of the parks department.

It’s also an issue of equity. Poor families could be less inclined to buy the pass in favor of free county and city parks.

“This is supposed to be a safety valve outlet for families in difficult times,” Pflug said.

While uncertainty and speculation drives most of the conversation, there is hope that the fees will be a more reliable money source than the Legislature.

“If it provides stability and predictability, and if it’s less susceptible to the vagaries of the budget process, then I think that in itself, it’s good,” Herzog said.

Rich Benson, manager of Lake Sammamish State Park, returns to the ranger station at the end of the work week. He said the park could use help from a ‘friends’ group. CHAD COLEMAN/REPORTER NEWSPAPERS

Ken Hite, president of the Bridle Trails Park Foundation, says the organization expects to pay for half of the park’s operating costs, about $30,000 annually, for the next 30 years. CELESTE GRACEY/REPORTER NEWSPAPERS

Lake Sammamish State Park manager and Ranger Rich Benson says the park could use some help from groups, similar to the case at Bridle Trails State Park between Bellevue and Kirkland. CHAD COLEMAN/REPORTER NEWSPAPERS

Ranger Rich Benson stands at Tibbetts Beach in Issaquah. The park could use many improvements, but Benson said driving change is going to take more than money. It’s also going to take advocacy. CHAD COLEMAN/REPORTER NEWSPAPERS

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