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News / Sports / Outdoors

Washington’s first new state park in nearly 40 years moves closer to completion

By Ty Vinson, The Olympian
Published: March 11, 2024, 6:01am

OLYMPIA — The development of Nisqually State Park outside Eatonville has been in the works for nearly four decades. Now, parks officials expect Washington’s newest state park to be nearly completed by next summer.

It’s the first time a local tribe has been made a serious partner in the development of a new park. The land has major cultural significance to the Nisqually Tribe, and the waterways, which need protection, are vital to salmon populations.

By summer 2025, the park will feature trails and roads, and in the near future overnight camping areas, an interpretive center, native art, an amphitheater, picnic areas and more. It will be the first Washington state park with overnight camping in more than 30 years.

Leadership from the Nisqually Tribe and the Washington state Parks and Recreation Commission updated their partnership agreements earlier in February with signatures from new leadership. The update included an outline for the next phase of the park and $500,000 of artwork by Nisqually artists that will be featured throughout the park.

The park will have an administration building and plaza, staff housing and trails that overlook areas of Mt. Rainier, the Nisqually River, Ohop Creek and the Mashel River. The entrance is about three miles west of Eatonville on state Route 7.

The 1,200-acre park is neighbors with 549 acres of Nisqually Land Trust property to the north and the 4,300-acre UW Pack Experimental Forest to the east. To the south is tribal land.

A groundbreaking for the next phase of construction will be scheduled for some time later this spring.

A historic connection

Tony Sanchez, Nisqually Tribe Parks Committee chairman, said the state Parks and Recreation Commission reached out to several Washington tribes around 2006 when the master and land-use plans were being drawn up to be a part of the conversation. He said only the Nisqually Tribe responded.

“The tribe was very interested, it being the birthplace of (Chief) Leschi and historically a Nisqually village,” Sanchez said.

Lisa Breckenridge, who works in Parks & Planning with the Nisqually Tribe, said the Nisqually people have maintained connections to the park land for thousands of years. Chief Leschi was born in 1808 in a village on the Mashel River, and the surrounding forests were the background of his childhood. Fishing camps were located up and down the creeks for millennia.

Breckenridge said after the wars that culminated in the Medicine Creek Treaty, which Leschi was present for, logging companies started buying up all the native land. The forests were used for their resources and then put back up for sale.

State Parks got involved in 1987, after the legislature said a park should be built at the confluence of the Ohop, Mashel and Nisqually, and the forests became public again. But the parcels were held for future development with no money to move projects forward or for staffing. The first official trail didn’t open until 2015.

She said people would come up to the area and do whatever they wanted, including make their own trails.

“There was a lot of trash, there was a lot of vandalism,” Breckenridge said. “When I started coming up here people were driving around the gates routinely to come camp down here at the river.”

Breckenridge said years of vandalism and misuse, on top of logging and development of natural areas into farms, has put the waterways’ salmon populations of Chinook and Steelhead at risk.

Debbie Preston, PIO for the Nisqually Tribe, said current Chairman Willie Frank III has never fished for Steelhead on the Nisqually River. It used to be one of the tribe’s primary winter fisheries.

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Preston said the big thing about this project is it will allow for better management of the forests and waterways. She said restoring the natural habitat and putting measures in place to protect salmon will be better in the long run than keeping the property in its unmanaged state.

Restoration efforts

Breckenridge said lots of work has been done since last summer to clean things up and restore riparian habitats and wetlands. Parks ranger Alicia Feist said thousands of native plants have been added to damaged areas. And there’s more staff at the park so there’s been less vandalism and camping in sensitive areas.

At this point, about 80% of the Nisqually River’s banks are under protected status.

Brian Yearout, a State Parks project manager, said a future phase of construction includes 60 overnight camping spots in a myriad of designs to allow for different types of stays. The end goal is to have a campground with 150 spots, but not all phases have been fully funded. The Nisqually Tribe is contributing some funding, he said, but most of the budget is coming from the state.

Yearout said Parks secured a $3 million grant from the State Recreation and Conservation Office for an overlook trail near the entrance of the park that’s in permitting.

Including work that’s already been done to manage the park, Yearout said the bill for these first few phases was about $42 million. He said they will be making a request soon for another $17 million for the campground, and building out the trails won’t be a cheap feat.

“We’re building this new park in the middle of nowhere,” Yearout said. “It’s like building a small city from zero.”

But once it’s all open, Sanchez said he could see it being a popular destination for all.

“It’s going to be one person who comes, they’re going to bring 10 people, they’ll bring 20, and they’ll bring 40 because it’s something new and different and out of the way,” Sanchez said.

Chelsie Sharp, Nisqually’s special projects manager, said once the infrastructure is in place, schools will be able to bring larger groups down to the confluence to witness salmon spawning and learn more about Nisqually history and culture. She said right now, she’s working with a group of students to name future trails at the park after native plants and animals in their native language.