Officials confirm South Whidbey State Park will transition to day-use only

Freeland resident Keith Anderson walks through empty campgrounds at South Whidbey State Park on Tuesday. The grounds

It appears the campground closure at South Whidbey State Park may be permanent.

Virginia Painter, spokeswoman for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, confirmed Tuesday that a site plan to be conducted later this year will specifically examine how to transition the campgrounds to a day-use facility only. The nature of the closure — internal tree rot of old-growth trees — isn’t something that can be easily fixed, leaving little choice but to look for alternatives, she said.

“It doesn’t go away, so it becomes a question of what to do next,” Painter said.

The state agency announced Friday that the campgrounds, nestled in the heart of the 347-acre old-growth park, had been deemed unsafe for overnight use due to the hazards of internal tree rot in the surrounding forest. Parks staff became aware of the issue in mid April when they began preparing the campgrounds for its seasonal opening, May 1. Several large Douglas-fir trees in the campground had snapped and fallen across campsites.

The season runs through Sept. 15.

While the area remains open for day use, such as walking or picnicking at camp sites, the normally bustling campgrounds was a ghost town Tuesday morning. The only person in that part of the park was Freeland resident Keith Anderson, who was there for his morning run on the Beach Trail. He hadn’t heard about the closure, but said the state’s precautions seemed reasonable.

“I can see where the state needs to protect itself from liability, and getting sued for $100 million,” Anderson said.

He also supported the decision to keep the area open for day use, saying the risk for injury seems acceptable for all but overnight campers.

Whidbey Island resident and park volunteer host Glenn Vallance, 90, was killed by a falling tree at the park in 2003. He was returning to his motorhome after grocery shopping in Freeland when a 136-foot fir tree fell on his truck, according to a story in the South Whidbey Record. A state park ranger was quoted in the story as saying the 250-year-old tree that hit Vallance’s car showed no signs of deterioration.

The state park is a busy place. During the past fiscal year, June 1, 2013 to July 31, 2014, the park hosted 14,200 overnight campers, generating $97,500 in revenue. For calendar year 2014, the park saw a total visitor count of 42,600, which included daytime visitors.

According to Painter, the decision to close wasn’t made lightly. A specialist was consulted, who agreed a safety risk existed. The final decision was made last week; the agency stopped taking reservations Monday, alerted the department’s online vendor of the closure on Wednesday and began notifying campers with reservations on Thursday. The media was notified late Friday morning.

At least two private groups, Save the Trees and Friends of South Whidbey State Park, knew about the closure beforehand and sent out their own news releases or notifications to members Friday morning. Painter said they were not informed by the agency’s communications department, but may have learned about the decision from park staff, she said.

The site plan creation process is expected to begin in late summer, early fall, Painter said. User groups may work with agency planners, and at least one public meeting is expected  to be held. Dates have not yet been set.