Fresh air, leaves, sunshine, dirt under the boots — a walk in the wooded hillsides of Cougar Mountain, a quick escape from surrounding urban areas, can be a real treat. Thanks to a tremendous community effort, a chunk of that forest land has now been preserved and will not be developed.
A celebration was held at Harvey Manning Park on Nov. 13 as the city of Issaquah, in partnership with King County and The Trust for Public Land (TPL), announced the protection of the 46-acre property known as Bergsma.
There was a small gathering with light refreshments and remarks from several community members and officials, including Save Cougar Mountain co-founder Kay Haynes, state director for TLP David Patton, Issaquah Mayor Mary Lou Pauly, and King County Executive Dow Constantine.
Mayor Pauly, who had hiked the trail to the event, said,”Thank you for coming out today to celebrate an exciting acquisition of a forested hillside on Cougar mountain made possible through some amazing partnerships.”
“Wildlife, old growth trees and waterways that feed salmon-bearing streams are just a part of this natural wonderland,” she said. She wore a T-shirt that read, “#FullBergsma.”
After the ceremony, attendees were escorted on a short walk of the trails — the ceremonial first hike. The path takes walkers out of the park and into a picturesque paradise of trees and the calm surroundings of nature.
Saving the land
The land and its trails serve as a gateway between the park, the Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park and the Issaquah valley floor. It also connects with other city parks and trails, the Talus urban village community, and a major transit center served by Trailhead Direct, the county’s transit to trails program.
The Bergsma property, between Newport Way Northwest and the Talus neighborhood, had for many years been slated for development, but community members fought against that. Save Cougar Mountain, a grassroots community group focusing on conservation, came together over the last two years. It was originally founded by three women, and has since grown to more than 2,000 local residents.
“This really didn’t start as an organization. It started as an idea. It started as a dream. It started with the impulse to save this extraordinary piece of land that is so beautiful, so dear to us,” Haynes said.
Susan Neville, another of the group’s founders, said they were surprised to see the plan to build housing on the property, and that it didn’t make sense to them for a number of reasons – environmental impacts, traffic, and that the hillside is not the most stable.
“I looked at Kay and said – that’s not going to happen,” she said.
Neville said they received tremendous support from the city and the county and many community members.
“It was a huge community effort of all of King County,” she said. “I think the community really came together. We had more people tell us how uplifting this experience was and how it was so well done that they believe in our communities again. We’re in a time when we need to bring our communities together and I can’t think of a better thing to do.”
“This adds so much to our environment for being so close to the urban areas and very accessible right by the park and ride,” she added. “That’s the passion we took with it.”
For the past 18 months, they have actively been working with the Issaquah City Council, King County and various other local and regional community groups, organizations and agencies, petitioning to preserve the land as open space.
The city partnered with TPL in 2017 to start exploring options for purchasing the property. Issaquah secured 33.5 acres of the site for $10.6 million. About $5.3 million in Conservation Future Funds from the county, as well as other grants, are expected to decrease Issaquah’s total cost to $3.8 million. TPL has provided the city with $3 million to offset the costs on an interest-free basis until Dec. 31, 2019. For $355,000, King County purchased the remaining 12.5 acres that are adjacent to county-owned Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park.
Acquiring the land falls in line with two of the city’s 2018 Parks Strategic Plan goals — a trail connection from Talus to Tibbetts Valley Park, and hillside land acquisition. This project also progresses Executive Constantine’s Land Conservation Initiative, preserving one of the last privately owned properties on Cougar Mountain and expanding Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park.
“We’ve got a long way to go still to protect the last remaining, most vital urban green spaces, forest lands, farm lands… and trail corridors that are at risk of development or priced out of range,” said Executive Constantine. “But if more cities, nonprofits and businesses, and community organizations are able to form these partnerships and replicate what is being done here, we will permanently protect more spaces like this, the kind of places that make King County such a special place to live.”
Patton said he admired the tenacity of the community volunteers involved and the partnerships that came together throughout the process to make it happen.
“I really just want to thank everyone for all that they’ve done to put this project together,” Patton said. “It’s going to provide new access for thousands of people who want to hike and explore Cougar Mountain … and it’s just another great place for families to get out and enjoy nature and one another.”
Other partner organizations played a part in the acquisition, including Mountains to Sound Greenway, Issaquah Alps Trails Club and Washington Trails Association.
Mayor Pauly said she never would have guessed that they would receive a proposal for housing on a steep, forested and wet hillside. But with the city’s growth and the scarcity of land inside the urban growth boundary, she said land parcels previously thought to be unusable or too expensive to build on were suddenly on the table. However, she said maintaining open spaces and green spaces is a top priority as the town grows.
“Parts of our guiding principles as a suburban area urbanized is to ensure we preserve those amazing green spaces right here in our own backyard, and the Bergsma property, just north of here, is one of those special green spaces,” she said. “Those that are here and those that will come will enjoy meandering trails and beautiful scenery and trail running as they access the trailhead to King County’s Trailhead Direct or they wander from their neighborhood, here down to the valley floor.