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Hunting in public forest triggers debate
Visitors to Island Center Forest are greeted these days by large red signs noting that it’s now deer-hunting season in the popular, publicly owned expanse of woods between Bank and Cemetery Roads.
Courtesy orange vests — for walkers, cyclists or equestrians to don — hang at the four main entrances. Other bright red signs are posted along those trails that skirt the edges of the 362-acre forest, noting the proximity of neighboring homes.
King County owns Island Center Forest, the only county-owned property where hunting is allowed, and public officials are now working with trail users, the Island’s sportsmen’s club and others to determine if such a use is compatible with the growing number of people who come to the forest to walk their dogs or ride their horses.
In the meantime, they say, they’re determined to do what they can to ensure people are safe.
“Our number one objective is to provide a safe environment for trail-users and hunters,” David Kimmett, a natural resources manager for the county, said last week as he walked the trails. “There is no state law that governs how you use trails. But we hope people will put on these vests.”
Though Island Center Forest has been in county hands for five years, this is the first time officials have installed brightly colored signs or hung courtesy vests at the trailheads. It comes at a time of increased use and more intensive management of the nine miles of trails that wend through the forest: The county, with help from the Friends of Island Center Forest, recently installed kiosks at the trailheads; artfully designed signs noting the forest’s natural history are in a few key spots in the woods; trail signs will soon be installed at most of the trail junctions.
Along with these improvements, Kimmett said, he and others have initiated a wide-ranging conversation to determine whether it makes sense to hunt at Island Center Forest and to try to answer a number of questions about hunting in the centrally located woodlands: Do Islanders hunt there, or is it mostly people from off-Island? How many deer get taken from the woods? Would a more limited hunt make sense?
After last year’s hunting season, some neighbors raised concerns, he said. Some heard gunshots not far from their homes; others came upon hunters who were lost.
“That was a sign to us that we needed to take a closer look at the situation,” he said.
Hunting at Island Center Forest is a hold-over from the past, when the expansive lands were owned by the state Department of Natural Resources. In 2003, the state agreed it no longer made sense to own the forest for logging, and the county, after a concerted effort by several Islanders, agreed to take it on.
But it did so with a caveat, Kimmett said. In the interest of community relations, county officials consciously chose not to manage the forest as a pristine nature preserve, deciding instead to allow all of the existing uses — from horseback-riding to deer-hunting — to continue. Today, the forest is much-loved and well-used, overseen by a management plan crafted with the help of various user groups.
Some on Vashon say they’re glad the county opted to allow deer-hunting to continue.
Craig Harmeling, an equestrian and an hunter active in the Vashon Sportsmen’s Club, said he doesn’t think many Island hunters bother to hunt there. Because of the density of the woods, it’s not considered the best place on Vashon to find deer, which prefer more open habitats, he said.
Even so, he said, many Island hunters feel concerned about the trend they see on Vashon — an increasingly anti-hunting attitude at the same time that the deer population appears to be growing. A member of Friends of Island Center Forest, Harmeling said his goal for the forest is simple — “to keep as it was.”
“We’ve lost a lot,” he added, noting the proliferation of no-hunting signs on Vashon. “Maybe tomorrow I won’t be able to hunt anywhere else, and that’ll be the only place I’ll be able to hunt.”
Hunting runs from September until the end of December, with three different kinds of hunts: Currently, archery or bow-hunting is allowed; next week, muzzleloader begins; that hunt is followed by “modern firearms,” when shotguns and handguns can be used. Hunting with rifles — which have a much longer range — is not allowed on Vashon.
Only a couple of weeks between now and the end of the year are closed to hunting — Oct. 3 to 16 and Nov. 22 and 23.
State officials say they believe residents have little to worry about. Hunters these days are more well-trained than they were in the past; people born after 1972 — in other words, people 39 years old or younger — have to take a hunter education course equivalent to driver’s education before they can get a hunting license, said Mik Mikitik, who oversees hunter education for the state Department of Fish & Wildlife.
Hunting accidents are rare, he added, and when they do occur, most often it’s a hunter who’s hurt. Last year, seven people were injured in hunting accidents in Washington state, none of them fatally, he said.
Still, many Islanders say they’re concerned about hunting in Island Center Forest, especially in light of the forest’s increasing popularity.
Lisa Coley, who lives with her husband and three children on Cemetery Road adjacent to the publicly owned forest, said she’s heard shooting right behind her home, including target practice when hunting season hadn’t yet opened. The first time she heard gunshots, she was surprised. “I thought because it was a King County park, no hunting was allowed,” she said.
Coley is not against hunting, nor is she uncomfortable with guns; her husband is active-duty in the military, she said. But with three small children, she no longer feels she can use the forest during the fall and winter, when hunting season takes place.
“I know the risks are minimal, but it’s not a risk I’m willing to take,” she said. “I don’t want to mix young children and guns.”
Amy Carey, another Islander who lives near the forest, said she’s seen lost hunters not far from her home, unaware, it seemed, of how close they were to people’s backyards. The forest, she added, is thick, with few clear sight lines. “You can’t see what you’re shooting at,” she said.
The orange vests may help, she added, but she wonders about putting the burden for hunting safety on “hikers, birders and horseback riders.”
“And what about dogs?” she asked. “They’re not wearing orange vests.”
Kimmett, as he strolled the trail last week, said he understood people’s concerns. All told, he saw several parties numbering 16 people and a handful of dogs over the course of an hour on Friday morning, a high level of use. He, too, worries about safety.
“It would be easier if there were no hunting here,” he said.
Now, as the county and Friends of Island Center Forest explore the issue of hunting in the county-owned woods, he said he hopes Vashon hunters will step forward and work with them, helping them figure out who hunts there, what kind of deer population the forest supports and other critical questions.
It’s possible the county will ask the state to allow what’s called a limited hunt, where only a handful of hunters receive permits to try for a deer in Island Center Forest. Another possibility is what’s called a master hunt, open only to those hunters who have demonstrated a high level of skill.
“At some point,” he said, “we’ll need to come to a long-term decision here.”
Care to comment?
Islanders who want to weigh in on the issue can call David Kimmett at 263-7159 or the county’s feedback line at 296-8687. Or comment online by visiting the county's website at parksfeedback.com.