Music takes to the forest to drive South Whidbey State Park usage

Friends of South Whidbey State Park Programs Coordinator John Leaser surveys the state park’s amphitheater that will be used for the Forest Music Festival on Saturday. The music festival is Leaser’s brainchild.

The old growth forests of South Whidbey State Park have always been a prime destination for hiking and trail running, but the park will have a different element over the weekend — live music.

Nonprofit organization Friends of South Whidbey State Park has organized the first-ever Forest Music Festival from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, July 23 at the park’s amphitheater in an initiative to increase the park’s usage. South Whidbey’s “conductor of fun” and go-to host Jim Freeman will emcee the festival, and five Whidbey-based groups will perform throughout the afternoon with performers covering a range of genres from jazz to maritime tunes to bluegrass.

Hot dogs, beverages and other snacks will be provided for $1 a pop. A $10 Discover Pass is required to park within the state park that day, while annual passes cost $30. The event is free to attend.

The Forest Music Festival is the brainchild of Friends of South Whidbey State Park Programs Coordinator John Leaser, who recognized the park was in need of an entertainment program for the community.

Leaser said state parks used to receive more funding from the state for what the government called “interpretive programs,” or recreation for the community, but funding was reduced about five years ago when the state legislature mandated that state parks become self-sustaining. Staff was cut across the state, including employees who put together the interpretive programs of old, and a hole was left for nonprofits such as Friends of South Whidbey to fill.

“The parks department has done different things to try to become self supporting, and our organization is doing what we can to help,” Leaser said. “Part of the motivation here is to make sure the parks stay open, and one of the best ways to do that is to show they’re getting a lot of usage.”

Regular foot traffic in South Whidbey State Park has become complicated, Leaser said, when a bad case of root rot in some of the park’s trees forced the campground portion’s closure. The closure isn’t new, as the campground was closed last May after several large Douglas fir trees snapped and fell across campsites. Leaser says the closure has confused parkgoers, some of whom think the entire park is temporarily closed, so he and the rest of Friends of South Whidbey State Park stepped in to increase awareness and public usage of the forested park.

“I had this wild idea of hosting a music festival in the amphitheater to bring people out to the park who might otherwise not visit,” Leaser said. “I happened to have quite a few contacts in the music community since I myself am a musician who plays tenor sax with the SeaNotes up in Oak Harbor.”

Leaser and the nonprofit built a musical lineup of bands primarily from the South End with the odd Oak Harbor group. Suzuki method music program Island Strings will bring instructors and students to open up the afternoon’s affair at 11 a.m., with 18-member maritime group Shifty Sailors following up at noon. Whidbey Jazz Society, a six-piece Oak Harbor group, will take the stage at 1:15 p.m. with harmonizing cello and guitar duo Levi and James performing next at 2:30. The Cranberry Bog Bluegrass Band, who played this year’s Celebrate America in Freeland, will be the last official performing act at 3:45 p.m. before an open guitar jam session and sing-along will close out the festivities around 5 p.m.

Vern Olsen, a member of the Shifty Sailors, sees the festival as a way to build support to save the park from an uncertain future. He says it wasn’t that long ago that the state used funds to support places like South Whidbey State Park, which he thinks is worth saving.

Leaser points out that it would be a shame to lose the park if the state cut off funding, as the park has the only old growth forest on the island to his knowledge.

“We need open spaces for people to have a little solitude or relaxation time,” Olsen said. “Our island has some fantastic parks, all of which are available for people to do so many different things. We just have to do what we can to save and preserve them for our children and grandchildren.”

Friends of South Whidbey Communications Coordinator Rich Tamler said the benefits that an individual gets from being enveloped in nature is undoubted. He points to the success of the Calyx school, which is located within the park, and the solitude the forest trails bring people.

“On Whidbey we’re surrounded by forest, but South Whidbey State Park has a unique resource in the old growth forest, so we want to make sure it gets preserved,” Tamler said. “We’re glad to have gotten help from John, his wife, the area ranger and other sponsors.”