Whidbey forest lovers fight disc golf proposal

In front of other Whidbey Island Disc Golf Club members, Gage VonHaden hurls a disc in Fort Nugent Park in Oak Harbor. The group’s hope to  build a course at Rhododendron County Park on Central Whidbey appears doomed.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
In front of other Whidbey Island Disc Golf Club members, Gage VonHaden hurls a disc in Fort Nugent Park in Oak Harbor. The group’s hope to build a course at Rhododendron County Park on Central Whidbey appears doomed.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

It wasn’t a hole-in-one but a proposal for an 18-hole disc-golf course at Rhododendron Park on Central Whidbey is all but sunk.

Danni Baugher, director of the Oak Harbor-based Whidbey Island Disc Golf Club, said the organization is going to start looking at alternative locations besides the Island County park just east of Coupeville on Highway 20.

The decision was made early last week in the wake of an unexpected and withering round of protest emails submitted to county leaders; communications which Baugher said are based on misperceptions and half truths.

“It’s disappointing,” Baugher said. “It’s just a shame.”

In late November, the disc-golf club made a proposal to build an 18-hole course at the Island County park. The group has a course at Fort Nugent Park in Oak Harbor, but it’s small and the organization wants a more modern and challenging facility.

The sport is similar to golf but instead of clubs and balls, players use discs that resemble Frisbees and shoot for metal baskets rather than holes in the ground.

According to the group’s original written proposal, the course would have been constructed along existing loop trails in a 40-acre area. The document specified two concrete tee-off pads per hole, each about 12-feet by six-feet, the installation of directional signs, a message board and garbage cans.

“Absurd” plan

Although many of the details of the original plan have changed following discussions with county park officials, from reducing the number and size of tee-off pads to a strict tree-cutting ban in the ecologically sensitive area, the proposal birthed a firestorm of protest from park enthusiasts.

Saturday, Dec. 17, the Whidbey Camano Land Trust released an “Action Alert” on the plan that resulted in scores of emails to the Island County Board of Commissioners and county park officials. The group made it clear it was against the proposal, saying “it will cause irreparable damage to this irreplaceable part of our Island’s natural heritage.”

Most were simple objections, urging the commissioners to reject the proposal and seek alternative locations. But others were much more stinging, saying that even considering the idea was “frivolous and irresponsible” or “absurd.”

Rhododendron Park is credited with being a rare and sensitive forest, containing old-growth trees up to 350 years old. It’s believed to be one of just five quality examples left in Washington and possibly the United States.

“This is one of the rarest forest systems left,” said Pat Powell, executive director for the land trust. “This is not the right place.”

No tree cutting

But Baugher and county officials working on the plan said the land trust’s action alert was unfair and loaded with misconceptions, the biggest of which was the implication that wide swaths of forest would need to be clearcut for fairways.

“It’s quite upsetting,” Baugher said. “Never once did I say I was cutting one tree down.”

The club’s original proposal, which was forwarded to the land trust and environmental advocacy groups at the request of the commissioners, did mention tree trimming, seeding and mowing.

But the document wasn’t a master plan. Rather it was a general proposal of what a course could look like and that template had changed radically to fit the ecological concerns of the sensitive woodland, she said.

Not only would no trees have been cut, but the course would snake along established paths, some of which are already asphalted. Limited brush around “holes” might be moved aside for safety but the group is well aware of the area’s important ecology.

Club member and avid disc golfer Brad VonHaden said misconceptions about the proposal and the sport by the letter writers were unfair and frustrating. The group doesn’t want to damage a sensitive area and wants to work with anyone concerned, but it seems like people have already made up their minds, he said.

“It’s hard to have a dialogue when the first word out of your mouth is ‘No’,” VonHaden said.

Public Works Director Bill Oakes called the land trust’s communication to the public a “call to arms” and sharply criticized it at a recent work session with the commissioners, saying it grossly misrepresented what was actually being proposed by both staff and the disc-golf club.

“It was designed to generate letters and emails and phone conversations and it did,” Oakes said. “It was designed to incite and anger, and it did. It was designed to produce ‘How can you be so stupid county employees’ emails, and it did.”

Not giving up

According to Powell, action alerts are rare and are only done for issues that are “highly important.” She denies that it was inflammatory or even inaccurate, saying it was based on the disc-golf club’s original application. They didn’t know about the mitigating changes to the plan because they were never released to the public, she said.

But even if they had, it would not have changed the land trust’s position. Disc-golf is an organized sport and the course would allow for heavy foot traffic in a sensitive area that would result in negative impacts, Powell said.

While the conservation group is not against disc-golf, this proposal should never have been considered for Rhododendron Park in the first place, she said.

“It’s puzzling to us why it got this far,” she said. “It’s just so inappropriate.”

In a later interview, Oakes said he did not believe the land trust purposely put out false information but had appeared to have based its letter on the original proposal. However, he said no one called him to see if anything had changed, either.

Although the overwhelming show of opposition for the proposal has resulted in the disc-golf club looking for alternative sites, Baugher said it’s not ruling out Rhododendron Park forever.

Disc-golf is a popular, healthy and affordable sport that’s growing. Club membership is about 100 and the group wants a better course so it can continue to grow and host popular annual tournaments.

“If (other locations) don’t pan out, we’ll dig our heels in at Rhody because it’s a multi-use park,” she said. “That’s what it’s supposed to be but it’s not being used that way. It’s a shame.”


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