SNOHOMISH — When Ray Dawson arrived back at his car from his daily stroll in Lord Hill Park two years ago, he found a pile of horse manure had been plopped on his windshield.
He now theorizes someone wasn’t happy he parked in one of the spots designated for horse trailers. But with mobility issues, Dawson’s only access to the park is via the equestrian entrance, which has a gentler slope than the main boardwalk trail.
Lord Hill is Snohomish County’s largest park — and its serenity has attracted an increasing number of visitors. As the park’s users increase, so do tensions over sharing trails.
The park draws equestrians, hikers, birdwatchers, mountain bikers and others. The park wasn’t created with any of them in mind.
Most of Lord Hill’s trails began as logging roads or were created “socially” by exploring walkers. Now, the park needs trails that serve its growing user types and can withstand increasing traffic.
Lord Hill has few signs, and many trails don’t specify which activities are allowed. That ambiguity has created tension among groups like mountain bikers and conservationists.
It also means hiking boots, bicycle tires and horse hooves are trampling over fragile wetlands.
The Snohomish Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department has plans to study sensitive areas of Lord Hill to figure how to protect them, while still letting people enjoy the trails through the forest.
In the meantime, the department needs an interim plan to minimize conflict between the park’s user groups — like the kind that might have led to the manure on Dawson’s windshield — and to prevent further damage to natural resources.
“We’re trying to make sense out of what’s there,” senior park planner Amy Lucas said.
On a sunny late-March day, ferns flattened by recent snows were beginning to perk up one frond at a time. As the boardwalk entrance path descended into the park’s canopy of western red cedar and big-leaf maple, the hum of U.S. 2 melted into a serene silence, interrupted only by the rapping of woodpeckers searching for lunch.
Set in former timberland, the 1,480-acre park has about 33 miles of trails. It’s set on a ridge that rises from the Snohomish Valley floor, created by past volcanic activity.
When initially tasked with creating an interim trail use plan, the parks department proposed having separate mountain bike and equestrian parks within Lord Hill. A group of regular users requested that they remove the designated parks off of the drafted maps.
Two years ago, the department formed a group of avid park-goers to gather input. Based on quarterly meetings with representatives from 17 different interests and GPS trail-use data, the department is drafting a trail-by-trail use plan.
In early April, the panel gathered to discuss the park’s future. Mountain bikers sat at the table with bird watchers, neighbors, hikers and equestrians.
Conversation, while mostly civil, was tinged by debate on a central question — how do they accommodate different uses while maintaining the wild nature of the park?
Horseback riders consider Lord Hill the only part of Snohomish County’s parks system that offers a decent backcountry experience. They don’t mind sharing the trails with others, but run-ins with mountain bikers can pose a risk, said Cathy Nelson, director of the Traildusters Chapter of Back Country Horsemen of Washington.
The problem arises when a bike approaches a horse from behind at high speed. The bikes are often silent, so a sudden appearance can spook horses, Nelson said.
There are just a few areas in the park with sight-distance issues where such surprise encounters can happen, she said. One is the equestrian entrance, where bikes are also currently entering the park.
“If we separate that area, the other sight problem areas are rare out there,” she said.
Mountain bikes are a more recent addition to the park’s trails.
Lord Hill will never be Snohomish County’s go-to mountain bike park because there are already too many existing uses, said Yvonne Kraus, a member of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance.
As the county grows, she said the number of mountain bikers at the park will realistically increase as well. Kraus would like to see the park plans develop in a way that minimizes points of interaction between bikes and other users, as well as making sure paths can withstand bike use without erosion.
“We strongly believe Lord Hill is a place for all and we can design a trail network that works for all,” she said.
Other groups are concerned about maintaining the wildlife present at Lord Hill.
Cindy Easterson, president of the Pilchuck Audubon Society, said the focus should be on protecting the wildness of Lord Hill, rather than accommodating its growing usership.
“What we’ve heard the county talk about is the carrying capacity of the park because it’s large,” Easterson said. “If that’s your measure of success, carrying capacity of toys, dogs and people you can put in space, then wildlife is always going to lose. And the experience that people can have in that space will also be diminished.”
The Audubon Society has documented about 78 species of birds that call the park home, including great horned owls and Pacific-slope flycatchers.
Affection for Lord Hill Park runs high. At times, that’s made it difficult for the planning process to move forward. Some feel the discussion is at a standstill, with many of the same concerns arising repeatedly.
For the most part, Lucas said group members have a common goal: maintain the tranquil nature of Lord Hill Park while designing trails that everybody can enjoy. But because of the park’s haphazard development, changes will have to be made, and it might not seem like a success to everyone.
“Every user group will have to sacrifice something,” Lucas said.
Changes are coming
About two years ago, the parks department put in an official parking spot in the equestrian lot for those with limited mobility, like Dawson.
“It’s been an enormous help,” he said.
They’ve also recently put up some signs dictating trail use and rerouted trails to avoid wetlands in an area known as Wayne’s World.
More changes are to come.
In July, parks officials will start accepting comments on two different interim trail plans.
The first plan is based on feedback from the stakeholder group. The second is a segregated use plan, drafted by the parks department, that separates conservation, equestrian and mountain-bike areas.
In the segregated plan, the southwest portion of the park, mainly that surrounding the Snohomish River, would be dedicated conservation space. Many of the trails in this area would be hiker only.
The central eastern portion, with Temple Pond at the middle, is dedicated to equestrians.
The northwestern part of the park is designated for mountain bikers.
Hiker-only and mixed-use trails are dispersed throughout.
Altogether, hikers would have access to 24.1 miles of trails, equestrians 11.6 and bikes 15.4.
The plan based on group feedback signifies use trail by trail, rather than having dedicated areas.
In this alternative, hikers still would have access to 24.1 miles of trails while equestrians would have 15.2 and bikes 17.7.
Both plans create an entrance for hikers with limited mobility or small children.
At this point, there is no plan to provide an alternative park entrance for mountain bikers, though the department could look for ways to make the main entrance more convenient for them.
Both proposed interim plans would add trail markers, maps and etiquette signs that direct users on how to behave when they do encounter horses or mountain bikes. There could be interpretive signs that bring attention to wildlife and explain sensitive areas like wetlands.
The parks department also plans to place way-finding poles, which will help first responders locate injured trail users, throughout the park.
A public meeting in July on the interim plan has yet to be scheduled.
After that’s approved, the department can get to work on updating the park’s long-term master plan. Construction is set to begin in early 2020, according to parks documents.
Today, the park sees between 50,000 and 60,000 visits per year.
That number is sure to grow with an expected influx of 200,000 residents to Snohomish County over the next couple of decades, department spokesperson Shannon Hays said.
Lord Hill’s master plan needs to be updated to handle that increased traffic, Lucas said.
The current master plan, first drafted in 1988, includes building new trails and closing others. There’s likely to be better access for people with limited mobility and a boat put-in along the Snohomish River. The master plan could ultimately add 6 miles of trails.
All these changes, however, are pending environmental review. The parks department plans this summer to hire a consultant to identify critical areas in Lord Hill. Right now, at least 10 trails directly impact wetlands in the park and 16 trails directly impact streams, according to the parks department.
A trail count will also take place. These reviews will inform any updates to the master plan.
The studies, any changes to current trails and the addition of signage will be funded by grants and matching funds from Snohomish County.
In the face of the region’s expanding population, Kraus said the master plan will play a crucial role in maintaining the remote backcountry experience that attracts people to the park for so many different activities.
“I’m convinced … we can maintain habitat and protect that tranquil experience,” she said.
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; email@example.com.