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Regional park or aquatic reserve? Showdown coming on the fate of scenic Pierce County lake

phaley@thenewstribune.com

The first chapters of Lake Kapowsin’s history are told among the some 25,000 old-growth logs that line the bottom of the 515-acre mountainside lake and some thousands more that protrude from the depths.

The logs tell the story of how a mudflow more than 500 years ago from an erupting Mount Rainier dammed up Ohop Creek and created a lake between the surrounding forests, of how that lahar killed scores of trees that remained upright. Their lifeless trunks rose above the lake’s surface.

The remnants of that ancient forest tell the tale of how European settlers harvested the tops of the dead giants and used the lake to float huge rafts of logs from the surrounding forests to the handful of saw and and shingle mills that once lined the lake’s western shore.

Now, the next chapter of Lake Kapowsin’s history, after an eight-decade pause, is about to be written.

A decision that could be made this year will determine whether the lake will become the state’s first freshwater aquatic reserve or the centerpiece of a 1,000-acre regional park and the location of a world-class watersports competition and training center.

The state already has established seven aquatic reserves, all on salt water.

The dueling visions for the lake’s future match the state’s Department of Natural Resources, which controls the lakebed, against a coalition of civic leaders, legislators and business people who favor a nature-oriented park.

The coalition is led by Seattle businessman William Pickard, who for more than three decades has championed the cause of the lake as a park and a competition venue for human-powered watercraft.

The DNR effort is carried forward by state natural resources officials who see Lake Kapowsin as a unique venue to study the evolution of a volcanic lake.

It’s also a rare body of water near an urban area whose shores remain nearly unpopulated and undeveloped, said Birdie Davenport, head of DNR’s aquatic reserve program

The state plans to publish its plan to declare the lake an aquatic reserve this month and will hold a public meeting in Graham on April 23 to explain the plan to the public.

Based on the public reaction to that plan, the agency will make modifications, submit the plan for an environmental review and ultimately seek the signature of State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark.

Pickard, head of the Lake Kapowsin Trust, and allies in the Legislature and among local officials want to halt the DNR’s effort to place the lake in an ecological time capsule and to clear the way to make the lake a regional and, some say, a global sporting asset.

To that end, state Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, inserted language into the state’s recently approved budget bill that would have put the DNR’s efforts to declare the lake an aquatic reserve while the public provided more input into the lake’s ultimate fate.

“They pulled that provision out at the last minute in conference,” Becker said. “I was upset with the leadership for letting that happen, but I wasn’t going to delay the whole budget process to get it back.”

Pickard and his allies — who include the Pierce County Council, which more than a year ago asked DNR to take a more deliberate approach to the lake question — argue that the lake can serve two objectives, recreational and ecological.

The 515-acre lake and the proposed 500-acre park on the surrounding shore are part of the county’s Graham Community Plan.

But neither the state nor the county has the money to acquire and develop the shoreline.

That’s where the trust comes into play.

The park could be acquired, built and maintained using funds raised by a public-private partnership, says Pickard, a former Dartmouth rowing coach and a longtime rowing activist in the Puget Sound area.

Like New York’s Central Park, which was rescued from decay and deferred maintenance by the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy, Lake Kapowsin basically could cost the government little or no money.

Like the conservancy, the Lake Kapowsin Trust would solicit private donations, grants and charge parking fees and event fees to keep the park maintained.

Pickard says the trust model would protect and preserve the lake better than DNR’s plan because it would acquire the surrounding land. DNR’s plan calls for preserving only the lake.

The state’s plan would leave the shoreline open to potential residential and commercial development, the trust argues. Nearby, housing subdivisions are creeping ever nearer from Graham and Eatonville.

The trust’s plan calls for creating an Olympic-style rowing course on part of the lake. Pickard said the lake is ideal for such a course because it’s deep enough, wide enough and long enough to accommodate a 2,000-meter, 10-lane course.

Few venues in the country or the world, he said, have conditions as good as Lake Kapowsin.

The Montlake Cut, for instance, where the University of Washington’s rowing team competes, is too narrow for an Olympic course. Lake Kapowsin is ideal for such events because the area is sheltered from most winds and when winds do blow, they tend to be steady from one direction. Pickard said.

He compares the lake to one at Lucerne in Switzerland, known as one of the world’s premier courses. The Lake Kapowsin course, Pickard predicted, ultimately could attract world-class events as well as regional and Pac12 competitions.

Like the county’s Chambers Bay golf course, which brought the U.S. Open to Pierce County, the Lake Kapowsin course would give the area worldwide exposure, he said. The trust’s studies predict the course could generate some 10,000 to 30,000 room nights rentals for Pierce County hotels annually.

The park wouldn’t be a site just for blue blood rowing team competitions, Pickard said. The lake could become a training ground for junior rowing programs that could attract thousands of youthful participants. Such a program in Seattle does just that, he noted.

On the park’s land side, the trust would develop trails for hiking, running and biking and scenic overlooks for relaxation. The park’s present major recreational use, fishing, would be little affected and perhaps enhanced by the park’s creation, the trust contends.

The park development and water competition venue can’t happen if the state declares the lake an aquatic reserve. That status would prevent anyone from removing the tops of some of the old trees lurking just under the water’s surface.

Under the trust’s plan, about 1,000 of the treetops in the competition channel would be removed to create a clear area about 10 to 11 feet above the treetops. The roots and tree trunks below that depth would remain. The treetops would be moved to other parts of the lake to keep fish habitat in the lake at the same size. Thousands more treetops would be undisturbed.

The lake originally was habitat for salmon and trout, but outsiders years ago introduced “spiny rays,” fish such as bass and perch that prey on the native aquatic life. The state still stocks the lake with trout in the spring.

The state argues the lake is a unique asset with a unique history that deserves to remain undisturbed by further human development.

The trust counters that the lake’s ecology has already been seriously changed by human actions, the tree cutting, the logging that left thousands of logs littering the bottom of the lake and the introduction of foreign species to the lake.

The lake could become a major asset for Pierce County and the state if the DNR doesn’t block the park’s development, Pickard said.

“I’ve been promoting this idea for 30 years,” he said. “As a former athlete, I know that you don’t just quit. I think this park can still happen and everyone will be pleased.”

John Gillie: 253-597-8663

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