By Grace McCarthy
Bennett Knox began work as the new director of Whatcom County’s Parks and Recreation Department in early September. Knox joined the county from Louisville Metro Parks, where he worked for 20 years, most recently as park manager for the Department of Natural Areas and Jefferson Memorial Forest.
He received his bachelor’s degree in natural resource conservation from the University of Kentucky and his master of engineering management in resource ecology from Duke University. The Parks Department oversees 16,000 acres of land including natural areas, parks, campgrounds, historic buildings and nearly 70 miles of trails. It also manages eight senior centers, a community center and a shooting range.
The Northern Light sat down with Knox and asked him about his top priorities for the new position, how he plans to connect with the community and which trails in Whatcom County are his favorites so far.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What interested you about the position?
I had a longstanding interest. I initially applied to Graduate School in the Pacific Northwest. This job would involve types of land I had done in Louisville’s natural area administration, which attracted me as a next step. We did a lot of programming, not so much farmland management and land acquisition. The opportunity to bring my experiences from working with the community and to pay much more attention to resource management was really attractive.
What are your top three goals in your freshman year at Whatcom County and how do you plan to achieve them?
I’m still developing my goals. To be honest, I’m in a bit of a learning phase right now. We have a project backlog, so this has to be a top priority and involves building up human resources. One of my big goals for the year, and hopefully making great progress soon, is to get an understanding of what the community is like here and how the Parks Department can best support that.
What are your top priorities for the Birch Bay area?
I’m trying to get a sense of how the parks we have right now align with the destinations that the community wants to see. I think we have a great plan for Birch Bay Beach Park. I look forward to moving this project forward. We must work towards raising the funds to implement the phased plan. Trying to get started with the elements of the first phase of this plan is really important for the next year.
Do you know when Birch Bay Beach Park might be ready?
It will probably take a few more years. The cost estimate that we did in 2016 was about $6 million, which was fully executed, and it’s been a few years, so there was inflation.
What do you think of bringing public toilets to Birch Bay?
It’s a big part of this plan for Birch Bay Beach Park and that’s certainly one of the things we want to accomplish in phase one besides parking. I’m trying to look holistically, to step back and think about how the parks that we have in this area are connected.
What places in Whatcom County have you visited since you started your job?
I’ve been everywhere The only place I haven’t been is Sumas. I’ve been to Everson, Blaine, Birch Bay, Point Roberts, Lynden, Nooksack and Lake Whatcom. I still have a lot to see, but I’m probably around 60 percent.
How do you plan to meet the needs of remote areas and rural communities?
My background in Louisville was trying to give attention to needy and marginalized communities. Part of my goal is to learn what the needs are. We are fortunate that a lot has been planned here in connection with health equity. There are many requirements related to different parks and how to connect them to trails.
We need to take a look at some of the parking needs assessments we’ve done and revitalize them. One of my priorities for the next year is updating the Comprehensive Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Plan. There is a need for additional public input. Part of that will be for me to look at the communities in remote areas, what their needs are, how we can serve them and at least include recommendations in the plan.
What interested you in this area?
I grew up on a farm so I’ve always had an interest in nature and the outdoors. It’s part of my nature to want to uplift people who may not have the same opportunities. I love looking at ways we can help people who are gaining access to parks, be they youth, seniors, or people who may not have the best access to parks. The interface between nature and trying to help people live better lives.
Are there any upcoming projects or events we should be keeping an eye on?
We have done a lot of work at Silver Lake to improve the campgrounds, we have active projects to complete some of the shower facilities and move to an additional facility next year. This is one of the bigger projects we have and it’s probably one that’s progressing the most. We have a project at the Plantation Rifle Range to reopen the indoor shooting range. There is a project there that is looking at the lead contamination issue, so there will be a public outreach about it. We have a trail connection, EH1, near the Hertz Trail in Lake Whatcom Park. This trail segment will be completed by next year.
What steps do you plan to take to address the environmental impact of outdoor recreation, such as waste issues, erosion, etc.?
I can’t give specifics at the moment, but my background is in resource management. That’s one of the reasons I’m really interested in this job. Finding a balance between permitted recreational uses and these environmental impacts is critical. I know this is important to the community, especially when we’re talking about activities around one of the lakes and the Nooksack River.
Aside from protecting the environment, the aquatic resources here are of great cultural and economic importance. I’m striving to find ways that parks can improve our management to be compatible with some of the larger plans as they relate to the impacts of climate change and flooding.
When not working, what types of activities do you enjoy doing?
I play the guitar, I love to cook, I love foreign languages - I studied Russian and teach myself Chinese. I like being outdoors. Before I get too old and can’t anymore, I would like to learn to mountain bike, possibly take sailing lessons and I am very interested in fishing and hiking.
Do you have a favorite trail so far?
I’m really looking forward to Chuckanut Mountain. I will not have a favorite. I will have many favorites.
Can you provide an update on the Bellingham Bay to Baker hiking trail? As Park Director, what progress would you like to see in the project?
I can’t really say much about that now. I’m still trying to get a feel for all of our different trail systems and how they’re planned. I haven’t had too many meetings on the Bay to Baker Trail, but I’m hoping to get my hands on it.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I look forward to working with the community. It’s important that the community realizes how powerful it is. Depending on how they approach agencies and vice versa, we can all swim in the same direction. Coming to the table with positive ideas and a collaborative mindset is really what will make the difference. I love Birch Bay. I recognize that there are some great community leaders who have been doing a lot of great work over the past few years and are trying to move things forward.
The public is invited to meet Bennett Knox at one of the following upcoming community meetings:
- Tuesday, October 18, 6:00 p.m. – East Whatcom Regional Resource Center
- Wednesday, October 19, 6:00 p.m. – Bellingham Senior Activity Center
- Saturday, October 22, 2:00pm – Hovander Homestead Park, group picnic area
- Wednesday, November 2, 4:00 p.m. – Point Roberts Community Center
- Wednesday, November 9, 6:00 p.m. – Josh VanderYacht Memorial Park, Community Hall