EDITORIAL | Whidbey’s, Washington’s heritage shouldn’t be for sale

The public is learning this week that a large section of Possession Point State Park is proposed for surplus — a term used by Washington State Parks for property that would either be traded to another public entity or, in rare cases, sold to a private party.

For parks lovers across South Whidbey, it’s a frightening thought. People are nervous, and they should be. Make no mistake, Washington State Parks is in dire financial straits. It’s drowning, so much so that agency decision makers are making choices and choosing directions once thought too terrible to contemplate, from the surplussing of community jewels like Possession to the commercialization of others such as Joseph Whidbey State Park. The reality is the agency simply doesn’t have the money to carry on as it once did. But does it justify the current path, a fundamental shift in the way parks approaches and manages the state’s most precious natural resources?

We don’t believe it does. The choices being made now are machinations born of desperation. The price tag, however, will be felt long past the next biennium. As critics have aptly noted, once a property is developed, no matter how sensitively done, its character and wonder is lost. And it’s difficult to get it back.

Possession Point State Park was purchased in 1999 to the tune of about $1.4 million with a combination of state Recreation and Conservation Office and local dollars. Though the exact amount could not be confirmed by press time, Goosefoot contributed what is believed to have been several hundred thousand dollars.

The park is located near the Port of South Whidbey’s boat launch, and is part of the Cascade Marine Trail, a system of waterfront campsites for non-motorized water travelers such as a kayakers. The upland part of the park, about one-fourth of the total, includes a ridge trail and is the portion considered for surplus. The term isn’t an automatic death sentence for the area, but would allow the property to be given to a public entity such as Island County. In rare cases it would be sold or auctioned. Even then, mandates from the funding sources used to secure the property would require parks to use any money from a sale to buy another property of similar value or importance.

While the threat of a sale or possible development seems minuscule, it would be a mistake to discount it entirely. For starters, Island County and a host of other local entities have made it clear in recent years they aren’t keen about taking on additional properties. The donation of Robinson Beach Park by the Robinson family several years ago was practically a forced affair. The county only reluctantly took it after two other South Whidbey junior taxing districts — the port and South Whidbey Parks and Recreation — declined. The point is, even if the first priority is to keep it in public hands by passing it off, it’s hard to accomplish with no willing takers.

That the uplands could be sold or auctioned is not only possible, it seems almost likely. But Possession Point is a symptom of a larger problem, and that’s a lack of funding. We live in interesting times, where money is short and the public’s representatives have to be much more selective about where their funding priorities lie. And they have. The Legislature’s support of parks plummeted from $94.5 million in the 2007-09 biennium to just $8.7 million in the 2013-15 biennium.

Unfortunately, the decisions are shortsighted, focusing on the financial headaches of today at the expense of the future.

Know why access to the shoreline is such a public issue today? Because the state Legislature between statehood and 1971 sold about 70 percent of it to private property owners. Conversely, the federal government or, more specifically, bold leaders such as President Abraham Lincoln, President Theodore Roosevelt and President Woodrow Wilson took a different tack by working to preserve land such as Yosemite and Yellowstone and later creating the National Park System. Their opposition was certainly fierce yet they had the constitution and vision to recognize that our natural resources are not inexhaustible nor infinite. They shouldn’t be for sale. Not then, and not now.

Our children deserve better.

A meeting on the state’s park plan is scheduled for 6-8 p.m., Tuesday, April 26 at Whidbey Water Services on 5585 Lotto Ave., Freeland.