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County, Maury residents concerned about dirt bikes at new natural area
Months after King County took ownership of the former Glacier Northwest property on Maury Island and opened it as a natural area, Maury residents as well as county officials are worried that the growing presence of dirt bikers, despite rules that prohibit them at the site, will make it difficult for walkers, joggers and equestrians to enjoy the area.
Dockton resident Wendy Nickolay said that in the half-dozen years she’s lived near and walked at the former Glacier site, she has rarely seen dirt bikers there. But almost immediately after King County purchased the property, she said, they began riding there regularly.
“It’s a completely different situation somehow,” she said.
Nickolay said she is troubled by the change, not only because the dirt bikers are technically breaking county rules but because the bikes are loud, disturb land that has been designated for conservation and may be a danger to others at the site.
Recently, she said, one biker came close to hitting her as she walked on a main trail at the site with a friend.
“A guy came screaming around the corner and had to brake,” she said.
The issue seemed to come to a head a little over a week ago, when Nickolay and others say at least 10 dirt bikers showed up at the site at once, more than they’ve ever seen or heard.
Nickolay said she emailed the county with her concerns, as did several of her neighbors. Some even called the police.
Sgt. John Urqhart, a spokesman for the King County Sheriff’s Office, said that a deputy responded to the incident and issued warnings to those involved.
Nickolay said she was especially surprised to see so many bikers at the site after a public meeting earlier this month where county officials told a crowd of about 150 Islanders, including a large contingent of young dirt bike riders, that off-road vehicles of any kind are currently prohibited at the site.
Connie Blumen, the county park department’s natural resource lands manager, told those at the meeting that not only are dirt bikes prohibited by park rules that govern the new site, but the property was purchased in part with county Conservation Futures funds, which also dictate that off-road vehicles cannot be used there.
At the same time, Blumen said, the dirt bikers’ comments at the meeting that they’ve ridden at the site for years and would like to keep doing so would be taken into consideration during the county’s park planning process. She said that a complex land swap could one day allow bikers to use at least part of the property.
Nickolay, who attended the meeting, said the bikers seemed cooperative at the time.
“The following week they turned up en masse and basically thumbed their noses at everything that happened at the meeting,” Nickolay said.
Kristine Dahms, who also lives near the new county property and can’t ride her horse at the site when dirt bikes are out because of the noise, feels torn by the issue. She said she knows young dirt bikers who are very polite, and she believes most on Vashon are following the new county rules. However, she thinks a small group of people is causing trouble and called the recent incident a “show of aggression.”
“I was actually sympathetic to the bikers before, having grown up in a small town with a gravel pit. But now … I’m angry,” she said.
King County officials are aware of the dirt bikers’ recent use of the site, said Doug Williams, a spokesman for the county’s Deparment of Natural Resources and Parks (DNRP). He said county workers who routinely visit the site have noticed an increase in tire tracks there and have also encountered dirt bikers and asked them to leave.
“They’ve generally been pretty receptive to leaving,” he said. “They grumble a little bit, but they understand why.”
Just recently, Williams said, about a half-dozen new signs went up around the site’s perimeter. The signs identify the property as a natural area and list park rules, including one that prohibits off-road vehicles. Williams said the county hopes the signs will work to eliminate the issue.
Williams said the Conservation Futures funds used to purchase the site prohibit dirt biking for a reason, as the activity can erode and degrade the landscape. In addition, he said, the bikes could disturb soil on the site that was polluted by Asarco’s smelting operation in Tacoma, pollution the county is currently working with the state Department of Ecology to address.
“It could kick up dust and redistribute that pollution,” he said.
In addition to installing signs, he said, park officials have also contacted the King County Sheriff’s Department and are working to increase patrolling in the area.
There are also plans to install physical barriers to keep dirt bikes off the property.
“They are structures that are specifically intended to keep motorized vehicles out of areas. … The issue is it’s a big pice of property and there are lots of access points,” he said.
Michael Alberthal, a 14-year-old who used to ride at the site, said he and his friends stopped riding there after it was purchased by the county because they didn’t want to get in trouble. He believes those who continue to use the site — mostly high schoolers and young adults — are likely aware of the new rules, and he is unsure if signs will stop them from riding there.
“They know that they’re not supposed to be there,” he said. “They’re asking for trouble.”
Dylan Ellingson, an 18-year-old motocross racer who spoke at the public meeting in favor of continued dirt biking at the property, said he hasn’t been to the site since the county took ownership but believes some feel more free to do so now that Glacier employees aren’t around. He added that he wouldn’t hesitate to ride there himself, unless perhaps he saw the new signs prohibiting it.
“They keep telling us we’re not allowed to be there, but it’s like, if you’re that worried about it, put up signs, and I’m sure of lot of people would stop riding there,” he said.
Ellingson’s mother, Ginger Ellingson, said she was upset to learn that the county prohibited dirt bikes at the site, calling it unfair to taxpayers and those who have ridden there for so long.
“My understanding was that the majority of the money that paid for that property is from King County. If my property taxes went into that, I feel we have a right to use that also,” she said.
Ginger Ellingson also feels the county is doing young riders a disservice, as there are few activities for young people on Vashon.
“It’s something for the kids to do other than going out drinking and doing drugs. It’s a positive activity,” she said
She, too, is skeptical whether new signs will stop young people from riding.
“They may try to find some other place to go, or they may say this is what I really want to do and I’m willing to take the risk,” she said.
Dahms, who volunteered with Preserve Our Islands for almost a decade, said she is especially disappointed at some bikers’ violation of the rules after she and other volunteers spent so much time working to protect the site.
“The irony is that if the mine had gone through they wouldn’t be able to use it. … Where were they all these years when we were fundraising and we needed all these volunteer hours?” she said.