Campground tree thinning green-lighted

A green light by an ecologist for a controversial tree thinning project at Island County’s Rhododendron Park campground has the commissioners poised to depress the accelerator.

Rex Crawford, Washington Heritage Program ecologist, evaluated the proposed project during a July 13 walkthrough at the campground with interim County Parks Superintendent Lee McFarland and Commissioner John Dean.

Another walkthrough with McFarland and all of the county commissioners took place in May. Public outcry prompted the commissioners to hold off on the project until the ecologist could examine the area and assuage community concerns. The campsite area, which historically opens April 1, has remained closed because of hazardous conditions.

The project was originally proposed by former Parks Superintendent Terri Arnold at an April staff session. In addition to the campground, thinning was recommended around the perimeter of the ball fields at the county park south of Coupeville. The latter project has been placed on the back burner.

Foresters from the Department of Natural Resources met on site in March and determined that thinning would be the most effective approach on the seven-acre parcel of campground, as well as at the ball field, to achieve better forest health and provide increased safety. Crawford agreed.

“Given the purpose of the campground, the objective of the thinning operation seems justified,” he wrote in his report. “In my opinion, the number and location of trees to be removed does not seem excessive.”

Ron Godwin, owner of Washington Timberland Management, the company that has marked the trees selected for removal and would carry out the project, estimated in April that a maximum of one out of every three trees would be removed from the campground area. McFarland said the estimate was too liberal, although he is unsure of exactly how many trees have been marked.

“I always tell people, ‘I’ll go count the trees marked if you’ll count the ones that aren’t,’” he said with a laugh. The trees originally marked are slated for removal minus a couple of old growth trees initially marked.

“There were several Douglas firs that Rex pointed out that have old-growth characteristics, with thick bark, large branches and new sprouting branches in the upper reaches,” Commissioner Dean said. “So, I’m glad we took the extra step to check what we had planned so that we can save these old ‘centurions.’”

Crawford estimated in his evaluation that fewer than 100 trees would be removed.

At a June commissioners’ staff session, Steve Erickson of Whidbey Environmental Action Network said his impression was that the number of trees hazardous to campsites are far fewer than the ones marked for removal.

“I saw large, healthy trees marked for cutting,” he said in June.

General Services Director Betty Kemp said the county was proactive in informing the WEAN representatives of the July walkthrough, but only Crawford and county personnel showed.

Dean said after the second visit to the campground, he came to the same conclusions as Crawford, validating the commissioner’s earlier feelings. He also supported assertions made by Erickson in June.

“One of the other things Rex showed us is how the soil in campsites is being compacted by campers,” he said. “Those conditions underscore the need for the county to draft management plans for its parks, something Whidbey Environmental Action Network and others have correctly pointed out we need to do.

“For now, I think we have reached a suitable compromise that allows the forest to live and allows families to come in and enjoy it.”

McFarland said the commissioners preliminarily approved moving forward with the project in recent emails sent to the parks superintendent. A finalized agreement between the county and Washington Timberland Management will be put in front of the board during Monday’s meeting.

“We will honor what Rex had to say in the report,” McFarland said.

Although the timeline for beginning thinning is still unclear, the county is chomping at the bit to get moving, hoping to preserve at least a few weeks of camping this fall.

“The normal operating months are April first through the end of October,” McFarland said. “We won’t have too much time left. We want to get started as soon as possible.”

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