Last year my walkabout brought me through Bellingham, Washington for a bit. I didn’t really like it there; the overdevelopment that had overwhelmed the capacity of the city was obvious and the traffic was horrible. It was crowded and full of people who are really into shopping and fancy things. At any given moment the population was probably 50% Canadian bargain-hunters. There are also a ton of homeless people in Bellingham because it’s so easy to be homeless – there are lots of things the local governments do to take care of homeless people. Watching out for your fellow man is nice and all, but having to walk through a bunch of human waste and homeless camp detritus just steps off the main trail through town is not my cup of tea.
You probably have noticed -I did not like it there.
The Northwest is a very “car culture” place and there are few options for getting out in the wilderness without first doing a ton of driving. The only thing that kept me sane was Galbraith Mountain, a huge network of trails great for mountain biking, running, and hiking. I rode or ran on those trails at least 4 times a week even in the depths of the horribly dreary, rainy, miserably Northwest winter. It was the only place within reach that I could find peace and solitude. Geardog loved it because the temps were low enough that he could go out riding with me every day, and all the streams on the mountain were running, perfect for convenient water stops. Summer was great, too, and even on the very busiest day on Galbraith, I only saw five or six other people in hours of riding. This wasn’t because few people went there; not at all. It was because the trails are so vast that once you’re off the two main access trails, you pretty much have the place to yourself because there are just so many options. To get a feeling of how labyrinthine the trails there are, consider that I rode a minimum of four times a week for at least two hours every time, and didn’t get to ride all the trails on the mountain. Access was limited, but even so, it was easy to get away from it all.
I would have never stayed any time at all in Bellingham were it not for Galbraith. I would never even have considered Bellingham as anything but another installment of Generica; a breeding ground for strip malls, box stores, college bars, McMansions, gated communities, and homeless shelters. I certainly would never have thought about spending any significant time there if not for Galbraith. Sorry ‘Hamsters. I wasn’t impressed by much there, with the exception of the Fork at Agate Bay, a restaurant I miss almost every day of my life.
So, Galbraith gave me a much-needed haven from the insanity of the I-5 corridor and the Lower Mainland. To this day I don’t know what I would have done without it.
Galbraith is not public land. When I was there, it was owned by a corporation with a long-standing agreement to allow trailbuilding via a stewardship agreement with a local mountain biking advocacy group. It seemed to have worked out well; the trails were well maintained, there was no trash to speak of and few “outlaw” trails going in. Motos and their accompanying destruction were not allowed. Most of the trails weren’t “engineered” per se, and despite the lack of tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees to design them, the majority of the trails dried right out when it stopped raining (which wasn’t very often) and, despite what the anti-mountain biking people say, were back to smooth, unmarked loam almost immediately. I used to say that anyone who thought mountain bike traffic damaged trails should go take a gander at Galbraith, which got ridden heavily during the entire nine-month rainstorm called “winter” in the Northwest yet sustained no permanent damage. Bike tires SMOOTH trails, people. It’s just a fact.
Anyway, the company lost the land in the recession last year, and ceded it to a different company, one that immediately offered the land for sale to the City of Bellingham – at extraordinarily inflated prices. When the City couldn’t come up with the money within 9 months, the company started aggressively logging and ended the stewardship agreement. To a lot of people this seemed like no big deal, because active commercial forests are logged frequently, and rebuilding trails after a clearcut is certainly feasible. However, the true motive behind the decision to start logging is now becoming clear even for those with natures built from pure optimism.
Take a look at this map. This shows the harvest areas on Galbraith Mountain. It looks like no big deal unless you know the trails well, in which case you’ll see that access is almost completely cut off. As of that map’s printing, there are a few ways up into the trail network, but I hereby predict that those very few options will be the next to go. This is very clearly a calculated move to leverage local recreationalists.
Were the selling price fair, I’d pretty much understand. But this developer is trying to get almost $4000 per acre for the land. That is WAY over market value in case you don’t know.
For now it’s just being logged – no construction. But you know what? Look at that map again. See how close the roads are to the biggest logged section? Yep – tract housing, here we come.
During my time in Bellingham I had more than one conversation about this inevitable day. I’d look at the tract houses built on the borders of the trail system – in many cases ON what used to be part of the trail system – most of which started sporting “NO PARKING” signs pretty much as soon as they were sold. I laughed bitterly at the irony of the “save XYZ mountain/trails/access” on houses built on the flanks of the very land they were trying to “save”. See, it’s okay for THEM to mow down the forest for their homes, but not OK for anyone else to do it – their hundreds of acres of backyard would suddenly become the 1/16th of an acre the rest of us have to live with.
I think the destruction of Galbraith sucks. I think the property owner using recreationalists as leverage to try to make more money than he’d otherwise be entitled to really sucks (and isn’t going to work. The money is just not there. I hereby predict that at least a portion of it will end up selling but at market value; the owner’s shock/horror strategy paying off slightly, with the other portion being parceled off to developers for more tract housing) and the fact that no one in Bellingham seemed to have figured this out ahead of time really sucks.
There’s almost no public access to the beautiful Lake Whatcom because no one thought to preserve any when all the giant homes were going in. Hiking in the area is limited to logging roads (which by the way? Is not the same AT ALL as hiking on trails or wilderness) on private land, subject to the whims of the owners. What first appears to be beautiful forest is soon revealed to contain old logging debris of all types. Trail builders, including the WHIMPS mountain bike group and the Backcountry Horsemen group, guard their trail maps jealously, opting for the $10 profit per map over promoting even the existence of the trails (one Horseman just about had an aneurysm trying to avoid my questions about where the trails are, saying over and over that “maps are for sale at XYZ store, maps are for sale at XYZ store”).One’s view of surrounding ridges and hills reveals home after home after home. Galbraith itself would have more access but for the gated “private” communities that surround all but the two access points.
And it’s happening almost everywhere. Open spaces are going away. Eventually the only thing we’ll have left are the National Parks which, if you haven’t noticed, have their own brand of overdevelopment going on.
We have to stem this tidal wave of development. It starts with all of us. Our population cannot continue to grow – where do you think your kids are going to live? Yep, in a shiny new tract house built upon what used to be the open land that you hiked, biked, and camped on in the days of your youth. There’s no other place for them to end up in Western society, where we all need our space and we don’t want to share it – not with our kids, not with our parents, not with our neighbors.
Frankly, I don’t want to share any more, either. Please, people, practice some restraint. The planet can’t support this rate of population growth. Realize that if you buy a shiny new house bordering a forest, pretty soon you’ll have to share your forest with another few dozen brand new homeowners, thrilled at their luck in purchasing a house bordering a huge amount of open space.
Won’t they be surprised.