County parks gets national recognition

Sean C. Morgan

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week presented a national award to Linn County Parks and Recreation in recognition of the agencies’ longtime cooperation in the management of local parks and recreational facilities.

The Excellence in Partnership Award is given annually by the Corps and the Corps of Engineers Natural Resource Education Foundation to recognize outstanding contributions by a partner to the Corps recreation and environmental stewardship programs.

Linn County Parks and Recreation was among “a number of great nominees nationwide,” said Heather Burke, National Partnership Program manager from the Corps headquarters. “Linn County Parks just rose to the top.”

The county department operates two campgrounds, Sunnyside and Whitcomb Creek at Foster and Green Peter reservoirs, along with Lewis Creek Park on Foster and five boat launch facilities between the two lakes.

Linn County Parks and Recreation has also partnered with the Corps of Engineers to develop a regional recreation plan for the Green Peter Reservoir, addressing a long history of issues along the Quartzville Corridor, including unsupported dispersed camping created at pullouts along the seasonally congested two-lane highway. Boats and vehicles encroach on the roadway, creating hazards along the corridor, according to the nomination form.

The campsites have expanded over time, compacted the soil and damaged vegetation. Other issues include vandalized timber, illegal fires, garbage and animal and human waste. The corridor also has been a haven for illicit activities, jeopardizing visitor and ranger safety.

Under the Green Peter Recreation Plan, dispersed camping has been eliminated, and more opportunties for camping in designated county campgrounds will be provided, improving visitor and ranger safety, addressing congestion, protecting the natural resources and helping eliminate unsavory activities in the area.

Parks Director Brian Carroll and his staff procured funds to match Corps funding to develop and administrate the planning contract and led the public outreach effort, according to the nomination. The local community, which has enjoyed free camping along the corridor, criticized the plan, but Carroll’s diplomacy in addressing the issues with users and stakeholders and his willingness to lead the charge, showed his personal courage and commitment to the partnership.

The department functioned as a bridge between the Corps and local community, reinforcing the Corps mission to protect natural resources and helping the public understand flood risk management and hydropower missions. This was important in 2013 as the Foster reservoir level was reduced to support a fish passage study. The low lake levels could have negatively impacted the recreation experience and local economy at Foster, but the department found creative ways to enhance recreation, resulting in low-water access at Sunnyside Park.

The department sets an example as a responsible public land manager, balancing the public’s right and opportunity to access and use the lands while protecting and managing resources in a sustainable manner, according to the nomination form.

It has taken perseverance, patience and perspective to get there, said Dustin Bengston, Willamette Valley Project Operations project manager. “We are a big bureaucracy. It is complicated to business with us sometimes.”

That takes patience, he said. The persistence and perseverance have paid off with a public-private partnership. Throughout, perspective has meant keeping an eye on the big picture.

A number of folks he works with probably never thought the Corps and Linn County Parks would get here, he said.

To put the award and accomplishment into perspective, said Mary Coulombe, Chief of Natural Resources at the Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Corps is the largest federal recreation provider, with 370 million annual visits on 12 million acres of land and water, more than Disney properties around the world and the National Parks system.

The Corps must balance recreation and stewardship goals, she said, and Carroll and his department have been able to work out a plan that does both while improving the visitor experience.

Carroll and his department also coordinated with the county Road Department to enlist support of a multi-agency effort to acquire $6.2 million in federal highway funds to support the objectives of the plan.

“I just want to thank everybody in the room, whether you’re actually doing it or working with the public or retired and enjoying it,” Coulombe said. More than anything, she thanked Carroll and the parks department.

Debbie Chenowith of the Corps Foundation started with the the Corps 42 years ago, she said.

“We were not good partners back then. We’ve come such a long way.”

Now the Corps must rely on partners to take care of its resources and help with its missions, she said. “We can do the best with them only through partnerships.”

Linn County Parks faced high-cal`iber competition in the selection process, said Chenowith, a member of the team that decided on the award. “Your work and your partnerships really did stand out and rise above the rest.”

“It’s a proud moment for the citizens of Linn County,” said County Commissioner Roger Nyquist. He congratulated the parks department and the parks commission and all of the other people who helped make it happen, including Linn County Roads and GIS.

“Thank you,” Carroll said. “I probably don’t say it enough to all the partners we have.”

He thanked others who have played a part, including the county commissioners, noting that Nyquist can probably remember being there to help create Calkins Park on Foster Lake. John Lindsey has been the Board of Commissioners’ liaison to the Parks Commission, and Will Tucker served on the Parks Commission.

The Linn County Parks and Recreation Department has a small staff, just 11 employees, he said.

He was there representing them, he said. “They’re the ones that do all the work.”

He thanked his county partners too, the Road Department and the GIS office, along with other federal partners, including the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

“It’s just a privilege to work with all of these folks,” Carroll said.

It takes a lot of trust and credibility to partner to take the risks, he said. The Corps-county relationship has gone through rocky times and become a strong partnership.

“Quartzville is just beginning,” he said. “The hard part is still ahead of us. We’re going to continue to move forward.”