Residents band together to restore neglected park

Group plans weekly cleanups at Washougal’s Mable Kerr Park

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A group of Washougal residents gather for a cleanup event at Mable Kerr Park in Washougal, Sunday, March 17, 2024.

Brett Tarnet fell in love with Mable Kerr Park after moving to Washougal in 2020. In her mind, there is only one flaw that keeps the park from being perfect.

“It’s a magical place. It’s exquisite … It’s got its own spirit,” Tarnet said of the 20-acre Washougal park situated along Campen Creek. “There are places that kind of give you that (feeling), and this park is one of them. It has its own mystique. It’s got a windy kind of beauty, kind of a ‘secret garden.’ It’s a lovely, pretty place.”

But, Tarnet said, she feels the city of Washougal has neglected the park for far too long.

“You can’t walk in it. It’s been completely abandoned,” she said.

Tarnet and fellow Washougal resident Brenda Hutton have launched a grassroots effort to clean the park, which they say is neglected and suffering from a lack of maintenance.

Specifically, Tarnet and Hutton said, the park is overgrown with invasive blackberries, “which makes much of the 20-acre park impassable.”

And then there are the hazardous dead trees that are susceptible to falling down especially during winter storms when high-speed winds blow through the park, Tarnet and Hutton said.

The dead trees and blackberry vines impede access to most of the park, according to Hutton.

“It can be beautiful, but you can’t get through there because between you and the beautiful willow trees that you’d like to stand under, there are blackberries,” Hutton told city officials during the Washougal City Council’s March 12 workshop. “As far as I can tell from my little bit of research, which I’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks, this park has not been maintained at all since 2019. These trees have been dead for years. Dead trees first lose their leaves, then lose their branches. We have a ‘matchstick factory’ here. There are ‘matchstick’ trees that have been there for a while, all dead.”

Hutton said the park presents a “public safety issue” to the community.

“I know the trees have almost already fallen on somebody,” she said. “Thirty-mile-an-hour winds coming down with Columbia Gorge knock over trees that are alive, let alone these dead trees. These trees need to go. Cut them down, please.”

Tarnet and Hutton told officials that Mable Kerr Park “is notable for being the only park in the vicinity to be in a condition of disrepair.”

“It’s mystifying to me what the rationale is for letting the park just go to the degree that they have and not do any maintenance at all in the main area of the park, let alone the creek bed,” Tarent said. “The (other Washougal) parks are, for the most part, gorgeous and groomed. Not Kerr.”

Trevor Evers, the city of Washougal’s public works director, said the City routinely maintains, inspects and cleans all of its parks, trails and open spaces.

“Mable Kerr Park is a bit unique as its name says it is a park, but the reality of the area is that it is an open space with a trail, not a ‘playground’ park,” Evers said, “In addition, all land south of the main east-west trail is owned by the Washougal School District. As far as general maintenance, there has been routine trimming of briars, weed trimming, limb trimming, mowing and trail rehab. In fact, last fall, shortly after the main trail reopened to the public, we had a senior at a local high school do service work for his senior project in Kerr.”

The City did close the park in 2023, from Aug. 18 through Oct. 31, after a tree fell close to a pedestrian trail. During the closure, the City worked with the Washougal School District to evaluate and take down 52 “unsafe” trees along the park’s main trail, according to Evers, who added that the horseshoe-shaped leg of the trail remains closed due to additional safety concerns.

“Now that the heavy rains and wind of the fall and winter have finally subsided, we will be entering that portion of the trail to evaluate the trees with a certified arborist and do further removal before Kerr is completely open to the public,” Evers said.

Tarnet and Hutton struck up a conversation after meeting for the first time at the park earlier this year. They quickly discovered that they shared similar views about the park’s condition and decided to do something about it.

“My husband and I have been volunteering in Steigerwald (Lake National Wildlife Refuge), doing trail and habitat maintenance work,” Tarnet said. “All we take in there are our gloves and our hats and our dungarees and our shears and a fancy shovel — and we make a difference. It was clear to me, because I have that experience in the same kind of environment, that human power and time could do a lot.”

The two women, along with seven other community members, gathered at the park in February to discuss their plan of attack when they were joined by a surprise visitor.

“The mayor showed up, which was great,” said Tarnet, referring to Washougal Mayor David Stuebe. “He gave a speech about how fabulous it was that we wanted to volunteer in the park. We hit a wall after (we learned that we) couldn’t adopt the park, so decided to fix it instead.”

On March 12, the Washougal City Council granted Hutton’s request to clean the park. Five days later, the group held its first of its weekly “work parties.”

“We can’t cut down the dead trees,” Tarnet said, “but we’ll be out there with our shears and our fancy shovels, cutting the blackberry (bushes) down, pulling it out to the side, and then digging up the roots. Anything that’s dead — branches, stuff that’s down on the ground strewn all over, all the bits and pieces of trees that have turned into missiles and blown all over the park, we’ll clear that all out so we have an open space.”

The City included a proposal to restore the park in its Stormwater Management Action Plan, revealed earlier this year. The project, coordinated by the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership (LCEP), will remove dead, dying and invasive trees; regrade the entire site; install habitat features; realign and improve paths; and plant site-appropriate native species.

“LCEP started digging up the creek bed, but there’s still no maintenance of the main park area, which would be the part where you would have a picnic or pick dandelions in the lawn,” Tarnet said. “Except there’s no lawn (at Kerr Park). There’s just blackberry brambles and dead trees everywhere.”

The group intends to hold work parties “every weekend, probably alternating between Saturdays and Sundays,” according to Tarnet. For more information, visit kerr