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Island forest gets some attention

Stephen Holtz got so lost the first time he rode his horse in Island Center Forest that he didn’t know where he was, he said, “until I hit the chain-link fence around the dump.”

When he returned, he brought a GPS unit, so he could map his locations.

Soon, supporters of this publicly owned forest say, it’ll be much easier to find one’s way among the nine miles of trails that wend through the 370-acre wooded expanse.

With funds from King County, some 40 directional signs and 20 interpretive signs are being created and will soon be posted. A new map is about to be issued.

A kiosk has been erected, next to a large, newly installed parking lot. An open-air classroom and another couple of kiosks are on their way.

Holtz, an avid horseman who rides his bay gelding, Pie, in the forested expanse two or three days a week, said he applauds the efforts — much-needed improvements, he said, that will likely help bring more people into what he called “a wonderful slice of nature.”

“It’s like a little jewel in the middle of the Island that hardly anybody knows about,” he added. “And the county’s working hard to make it known to people.”

At 370 acres, Island Center Forest is by far the largest expanse of publicly owned land on Vashon. And as the name suggests, it straddles the center of the Island — a long, narrow swath that extends from the Vashon Transfer Station on the Westside Highway to 103rd Ave. S.W., a few blocks from town.

Once owned by the state Department of Natural Resources, the forest — now owned by the county — has been logged over the years, and from a conservationist’s perspective, it’s not pristine. Even so, Island Center Forest is an ecologically important and diverse landscape, many note, harboring the headwaters for Judd Creek, expansive wetlands and countless bird species.

A few years ago, the county teamed up with a diverse group of stakeholders — from birders to hunters to equestrians — to develop a plan that attempts to meet the needs of many while protecting and restoring the forest’s ecology. The 146-page management plan the group crafted describes not only the ecology and recreational value of the forest, but also a carefully prescribed logging plan — an effort to restore the park’s forest ecology while bringing in some money to help offset other costs.

To those who have been involved in the process, it stands as a model for how diverse interests can come together around a shared community asset.

“I think it’s a marvelous example of how a community can agree on something they care about,” said Yvonne Kuperberg, a conservationist who’s been a part of the working group. “How often do you see the land trust, the Audubon club and the sportsmen sitting down together?”

For Islander Sarah

Wright, who runs Head-waters Earth Stewardship Program, Island Center Forest has also become an outdoor classroom. Every Friday, no matter the weather, she takes nine kids into the forest for five hours, helping them hone their observational skills and wilderness awareness while learning modern field ecology.

As a result, she said, “these kids are so place-identified. It’s so home to them. ... These kids know this geography.”

Earlier this year, Wright hooked up with Friends of Island Center Forest, the stakeholders’ group that’s working with the county, and began to explore the idea of an open-sided structure that could serve as a classroom, picnic area or even wedding site in the forest. In what she described as an amazing process, Wright was able to successfully advocate for her vision — and now funds are in the grant for the structure, expected to be built sometime next year.

“There were some hoops or stumbling blocks, as there is with any process,” she said. “But my experience on this committee has been really positive. I feel really excited about the collaborative nature of this project, and in particular this shelter. I think it’ll have many uses.”

The projects in Island Center Forest are being funded by a $100,000 community partnership grant, a program that enables the county to partner with locally based groups to manage and develop parks in a way that works for the community and the parks’ primary users, said David Kimmett, a project manager with the county’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

In the past, he said, county officials would have determined the future of a county-owned park. “This is really a radical change,” he said.

The approach also enables the county to stretch its dollars, he said — since user groups often pour untold hours and even resources into a park they love. Indeed, it comes at a critical time for the cash-strapped county, which recently announced the closure of a handful of parks and is currently working to transfer its pool on Vashon to the Vashon Park District.

By working with the Friends of Island Center Forest, Kimmett said, “We’re leveraging these dollars a long way. ... This is a way to counter potential park closures. We need partnerships. ... We’ll partner with anybody.”

Some of the county’s greatest leverage, Kimmett said, has come from Vashon’s active equestrian community, riders who built many of the trails and continue to work today to keep them open.

The county’s freshly minted map — the first one to accurately depict the forest’s warren of trails — underscores the equestrian community’s intimate involvement with Island Center Forest. “The Gallops,” one of the trails is called. Another is named “Craig’s Trail,” after Craig Harmeling, who rides his mule Jethro in Island Center Forest and has spent years tending to its trails. Another is called “Jack’s Trail,” named for Jack Eggers, an avid horseman who died about five years ago.

Over the years, Harmeling said, the horse community has watched forest lands that had been open to riders disappear, lost to the Island’s steady residential development. As a result, he said, Island Center Forest has become increasingly important to him and other avid riders.

“We keep losing trails. ... It’s getting harder and harder for us to ride,” he said.

Among the infrastructure the grant has financed is a huge gravel parking lot off of 188th Street, an area that used to be a grassy expanse dotted with old apple trees at the northernmost entrance to the forest. Some have grumbled about the size, Kimmett and others acknowledged, but to him and others involved with the forest, the parking lot was essential.

In the past, riders parked their trucks and horse trailers along the sides of roads, a dangerous and difficult way for them to access the forest, Kimmett said. The county and the Friends of Island Center Forest agreed to a lot large enough for several horse trailers, he added, because they decided it was only right to accommodate a user group that has played a leadership role in the development and protection of the forest.

“They’re a big part of Island Center Forest,” said David Warren, head of Vashon Forest Stewards and a member of the Friends of Island Center Forest. “We had to make something that would work for them.”

The work at Island Center Forest isn’t done.

One kiosk — made from wood supplied by Forest Stewards — stands next to the large parking lot but has yet to be adorned with anything. Two or three more kiosks will be built. The interpretive signs, which are being illustrated by Island artist Sandra Noel, are expected to go up next spring, both on the kiosks and at various places throughout the forest. The directional signs are also still in the pipeline.

Kimmett said the county is also working on trails, installing culverts and laying gravel to make them drier in the rainy months. Many of them turn into mud holes, forcing people to cut wide swaths around them.

The goal, Kimmett said, is to make the forest usable year-round.

“This is a community asset,” he said. “We want more people to use it.”

For more information about Island Center Forest and to download a map, visit www.kingcounty.gov/recreation/parks/trails/backcountry.aspx. Click on “Island Center Forest,” an entry in a column on the left side of the page listing “backcountry trails.”

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