BREMERTON, Wash. — Mountain bike instructor Sully Mynatt is about to reveal a 2,863-acre secret.
“In a big, beautiful park like this, we’re it,” she says near an unmarked trailhead near Port Townsend. “It’s just going to be us.”
She leads her students — five boys from Bainbridge Island — on an hours-long ride through miles of forest and meadow stretching across Miller Peninsula. The midpoint in the ride is a visit to one of the longest public beaches in the region, boasting expansive views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Discovery Bay.
Mynatt tells the boys to enjoy having the place to themselves while they still can. This state parkland, she says, is teetering on the brink of wild popularity.
But that was 2014. Two years after Mynatt’s Bainbridge park district-sponsored field trip, the property remains virtually unknown. Owned by Washington State Parks since the 1990s, the property known simply as “Miller Peninsula” doesn’t appear on promotional maps or the official roster of state parks. There’s no sign on Highway 101, no hint to the hundreds of passing motorists that a gem of the state park system is hidden nearby.
Washington State Parks has many properties like this. Dozens, in fact. A Kitsap Sun (http://bit.ly/2c7wmnk) assessment of state park documents and property records shows that at least 70 properties have been stockpiled in a growing list of would-be, could-be and perhaps should-be state parks.
Added up, the collection of unofficial state parks tops 14,000 acres, accounting for 10 percent of Washington State Parks’ total landholdings.
Nearly two dozen of these parklands are in the West Sound region. They dot the shores of Hood Canal, encompass entire South Puget Sound islands and stretch across hundreds of lake-adorned acres in south Kitsap.
While many of these properties remain hidden to much of the public, the public is indeed permitted to visit them. Few — if any — have No Trespassing signs. Ask a park ranger, and he’ll give you directions. Many of the properties get a trickle of use from neighbors and people like Mynatt, who happen to be in the know.
Waiting for money
Cross the Hood Canal bridge and the first sign you’ll see is for Shine Tidelands State Park. Take the right turn, ease down a short driveway, and you’ll find a gravel parking lot, a stretch of beach and little else. Washington State Parks admits Shine isn’t much of a park. That’s why they’ve downgraded its status from official “state park” to the more modest designation of “property.” But less than a mile to the north is a lesser-known waterfront property park officials say fits the bill for a truly great park. Thing is, they’ve been saying that for nearly 50 years.
Known as the Wolfe Property, the parkland lacks roadside signage and doesn’t appear on park maps. Unlike Shine, which does at least have a sign, the 200-acre Wolfe Property boasts an expansive upland with potential for camping, cabins and trails. Its gravel beach extends north to a sand spit dividing shallow Bywater Bay and a wide lagoon fringed by tall firs. Bywater is unusually warm for Puget Sound, making it ideal for swimming and wading. Oyster shells strewed across the beach hint that the property attracts a few industrious shellfish harvesters.
An unmarked trail on the Wolfe property offers “a beautiful little hike” to the beach, said Steve Kendall, the regional park manager in charge of Wolfe. But if you manage to spot the trailhead, don’t bother looking for parking.
“There’s not even a place to pull over,” he said. “Basically, you’d have two wheels in the ditch.”
Park officials have planned a modest parking lot since the property was purchased in 1967. In recent years, park officials floated a $250,000 proposal for about a dozen parking spots, a vault toilet, signage and trail improvements.
“But we have no immediate plans right now — or funding,” parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter said.
Lack of funding is the biggest barrier to bringing Wolfe and other undeveloped parks out of hiding. At a minimum, parks need trash cans, toilets, signs, parking and enough staff to support routine maintenance.
But covering the basics has become a struggle for the cash-strapped park system.
Washington State Parks has endured a 70 percent reduction in state financial support over the past decade. In 2007, the state allocated $95.5 million for the park system’s two-year operations budget. The current biannual budget is just $31 million.
As funding levels fell, deferred maintenance rose. Park officials estimate they’d need $473 million to tackle the backlog of building, campground and trail fixes.
“And the list grows,” Painter said.
To fill widening budget gaps, the park system began requiring the annual Discover Pass and day-use parking fees. It hiked rates for camping, cabins and rental facilities. It recently began delving into the formerly forbidden realm of advertising, selling space in parks and its website for companies to hawk satellite TV services, credit cards and other products.
Potential, but little progress
The Miller Peninsula property was favored for investment and full-fledged park status more than a decade ago.
“There was discussion — quite a lot — because it was seen as a one of those special places that would be viable for development,” Painter said.
Had Miller Peninsula been made an official state park, it would be the third-largest in western Washington and the ninth largest in the state. Stretching for 3 miles, the property’s beach is one of longest undeveloped and publicly-owned shorelines in the Puget Sound area.
Park leaders recently revived planning efforts for the property. But, citing staffing and funding constraints, the result was a plan endorsing the status quo, leaving the property’s 19-mile-long trail network as-is and relying largely on volunteers from user groups and the neighborhood to maintain it.
The 118-acre Camp Calvinwood property in south Kitsap has also been tied to grand plans. When Washington State Parks took over the lakeside summer camp 24 years ago, the hope was to create an environmental learning center and a venue for weddings and conferences. Today, Calvinwood’s lodge and six cabins are boarded up and its baseball field and trails are overgrown.
Washington State Parks has been acquiring large properties on Harstine Island for decades, but only one — Jarrell Cove — is an official state park. At 56 acres, Jarrell also happens to be the smallest of the four. The three other waterfront properties total more than 700 acres. The most recent acquisition was the 136-acre Fudge Point Property.
With a long sandy beach and expansive views of Case Inlet and the Cascades, state parks commissioner Pat Lantz said Fudge Point will be a stunner of a park. But not for her to enjoy and probably not for you.
“It’s for my grandkids and their kids,” said Lantz, who lives near Gig Harbor. With park budgets the way they are, it may take a generation or more before Fudge Point gets the roads, bathrooms, campgrounds and other upgrades the park will need to support the number of visitors it’s expected to attract.
Lantz said it’s important to preserve high-value lands like Fudge Point now before they’re gobbled up by development.
“Once the public knows about Fudge Point they’re going to absolutely love it,” she said.
Other stockpiled parklands have little chance of ever becoming full-fledged parks. Dozens of them are too small, too far-flung or too difficult to access.
The H.J. Carroll Property on Hood Canal is all three.
The waterfront park has been in limbo ever since it was donated in 1976. Located about 3 miles south of Quilcene, the property could be 1.4 acres or more than two times that size, depending on which state parks records you consult. Intended as a “mini marine park,” the Carroll Property lacks road access and remains walled off by surrounding private properties. Its high bank terrain limits development options. In 2005, park officials recommended offloading the property, preferably to another public agency. They’ve had no takers.
Washington State Parks has several similar properties in West Sound. The 2-acre Right Smart Cove Property, less than a mile south of the Carroll Property, also has access issues and strict development limits.
Three other properties on the canal, as well as sandy points on Marrowstone and Stretch islands and two tiny islands along the Kitsap Peninsula’s south end, are probably too small and isolated to merit official park status.
The 236-acre property known as Square Lake in south Kitsap used to be an official state park, but its status was quietly revoked years ago. If it got too little use to justify it as a state park before, its removal from park maps and websites ensures it gets almost no use now.
Proposals to transfer unwanted or underused parks to other public agencies, such as county or city parks departments, usually elicit pushback from the public.
Park leaders proposed several transfers a decade ago, but “the process proved to be divisive and created ill will and distrust among those living near the affected parks,” according to a state parks property management assessment.
Two state parks on Bainbridge Island — Fort Ward and Fay Bainbridge — were handed to the Bainbridge park district in 2010. Lantz and other park leaders regret the decision, especially with the advent of the Discover Pass, which islanders likely would have bought in droves to access the two popular parks.
State parks are sold on rare occasions. Last year, a 31-acre park in Mason County was purchased by the Squaxin Island Tribe for $45,000. Formerly known as Squaxin Island State Park, the property was closed years ago after the tribe put limits on shore access. Lacking land and water access, the property was determined to have little value.
Rather than sell or transfer land, Washington State Parks now favors long-term land-use deals with private companies and nonprofit groups.
The most prominent example is a public development authority’s takeover of Fort Worden State Park’s upland campus. The Port Townsend-based PDA oversees several lodging, food service and educational enterprises in dozens of former military buildings across about 90 acres.
Another recent deal was a 50-year lease struck with a commercial developer for the use of a small state park property in Auburn. The developer plans to build an assisted living facility on the land.
At Fort Flagler State Park, park leaders are asking business operators to turn the bulk of the park’s pre-World War II military buildings into hotels, restaurants and other attractions, and possibly take over management of some camping areas.
A growing surplus
Despite the park system’s budget struggles, its acreage has grown by 6,300 acres over the last 10 years.
A large share of the growth is attributed to property donations and transfers from other government agencies, such as the state Department of Natural Resources, which regularly offloads former timberlands. Washington State Parks purchases a fair share of property, but much of the money doesn’t come from its own shrinking budget. Many recent purchases were backed by the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP), a state program that awards tens of millions of dollars each year to purchase and improve state and local parks and conservation areas.
This seemingly contradictory phenomenon of expanding acreage running parallel with shrinking funding has raised some red flags. Last year, several members of the state Legislature questioned why the state parks system continues to acquire land when reduced funding makes it difficult to care for the parks it already owns.
Some legislators from eastern Washington fumed over the rapid pace of state land purchases in rural counties, which they said takes properties off tax rolls and slows economic development.
Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, argued that the public wants quality over quantity when it comes to parks.
Park leaders, he said, needed to “catch up on the backlog of (maintenance) on parks and trails that are so important to citizens — more so, I believe, than land purchases.”
A bill passed in March reshaped the WWRP, tilting the balance of funding away from purchases and more improvements.
Washington State Parks followed up with a new land acquisition strategy that emphasizes expanding existing parks and steers the system away from scattered small parks with little potential as regional attractions.
“With shrinking budgets and increased scrutiny, the agency needs to base its acquisition decisions on clearly described goals and strategies,” park leaders said in a policy statement approved in July.
Don’t get them wrong. Park leaders aren’t giving up on stockpiling.
In fact, they’re bullish about the need to preserve land even if the money to develop them doesn’t trickle in for decades.
The state’s population is expected to grow by more than 20 percent over the next 20 years. Most of these 1.4 million additional residents will likely pack themselves into the Puget Sound region.
The vast stockpile of unofficial parks — bought when prices and development pressures were lower — will come in handy then.
“These people will need parks, but we have to spread them out so they’re not all fighting for their 1 square inch of space,” Lantz said. “God’s not making property anymore. If we’re going to have quality of life, we have to think about not just this generation but way ahead to the seventh generation.”
Information from: Kitsap Sun, http://www.kitsapsun.com/