Tucked away in the northwest corner of Washington state lies beautiful, glacially-carved Lake Whatcom. The name derives from the Lummi Indian word for loud water – perhaps a reference to Whatcom Falls near the southwest outlet of the lake. It is a pretty lake, but its beauty is definitely not skin deep. The reasons for safeguarding natural assets like this lake go far beyond aesthetics. They include our health, economy, recreation and our very survival.
As I began hiking the Hertz trail, on the former the Bellingham and Eastern railroad right-of-way along the lake’s north shore, I was hit by an intoxicating waft of fresh air. The aroma was a delicious blend emanating from the lake water, cedar boughs, and ripe wild berries. I inhaled deeply, realizing that this kind of air cannot be found everywhere. Then I walked on through the Douglas Fir/Western Hemlock/Western Red Cedar forest with Big-leaf and Vine Maples showing fall colors.
A Red-breasted Sapsucker tapped softly, a Pacific Wren chattered in short staccato bursts. A Douglas Squirrel sounded its alarm call, and an American Dipper plied the shoreline, occasionally hopping up on a rock to survey the watery scene. Then a Peregrine Falcon flew across the lake clutching its prey, periodically shrieking as it returned to its perch atop a Douglas Fir.
All of these wildlife encounters made me appreciate those who successfully protected large swaths of land on both shores of the lake. A primary driver for these collective efforts is that the lake provides drinking water for more than 100,000 residents of Whatcom County, including 85,000 who live nearby in Bellingham.
This ten-mile long, one-mile wide lake, with depths up to 350 feet, has 13 species of fish including Kokanee Salmon and Coastal Cutthroat Trout. People boat, swim and fish in its waters, and they bike and hike along its shores. It is a recreational mecca for the same people who drink its water.
Lake Whatcom is not without its problems. Invasive species such as Zebra Mussel, Asian Carp and Eurasian Water Millfoil have found their way into its waters. And the water has had pollution problems leading to the state Department of Ecology declaring in 1998 that the lake had too much phosphorus and fecal bacteria and needed to reduce the levels of both of these contaminants.
In response, the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County took action to address the pollution issues. Among the measures they adopted were storm water improvement projects, removal of some pavement and lawns, and the addition of rain gardens and native landscaping to filter storm water.
Through the acquisition of State Forest Lands and park lands, Whatcom County has protected more than 9,000 acres of Lake Whatcom’s watershed. As the County Parks and Recreation Department notes “These large tracts of undeveloped land currently provide valuable wildlife habitat and watershed protection. They can also provide unique non-motorized recreation opportunities minutes from the majority of Whatcom County residents.”
Another major benefit of protecting the watershed is that it facilitates increased physical activity and time spent outdoors in a beautiful natural setting. This in turn improves our physical and mental health. Evidence of this was all around me on the two lovely mornings I recently spent at Lake Whatcom Park. Only one out of the 60 people I encountered did not smile, say hello and/or ask if I had seen any interesting birds or wildlife (I carry binoculars and a camera). The one outlier was a young guy with head phones on running for exercise at a brisk pace. He too chose this place to recreate, perhaps for its beauty.
By saving nature, we are really saving ourselves and our quality of life. In the words of Gaylord Nelson, late Wisconsin Governor, Senator and co-founder of Earth Day: “The challenges to all societies in all countries of the world is to forge an environmentally, economically sustainable society. The economy is –totally dependent on the resource base, and the way I would put it is the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”