By Grace McCarthy
Bennett Knox began work as the new director of the Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department in early September. Knox joined Louisville County Metro Parks, where he worked for 20 years, most recently as Parks Administrator for the Natural Areas Division and Jefferson Memorial Forest.
He earned his BS in Natural Resource Conservation from the University of Kentucky and an MS in Engineering Management in Resource Ecology from Duke University. The park service oversees 16,000 acres of land including natural areas, parks, campgrounds, historic buildings, and nearly 70 miles of trails. It also operates eight senior centers, a community center and a shooting range.
The northern light sat down with Knox and asked him about his biggest priorities for the new role, how he plans to connect with the community and what trails are his favorites so far in Whatcom County.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What interested you in the position?
I had a long-standing interest. I first applied for graduate school in the Pacific Northwest. This job was going to involve some property types that I had done in managing natural areas in Louisville, which appealed to me as a next step. We did a lot of programming, not so much farmland management and land acquisition. The opportunity to bring the experiences I have of working with the community as well as being much more careful with resource management was really appealing.
What are your top three goals in your first year for Whatcom County and how do you plan to achieve them?
I always develop my goals. To be honest, I’m in a bit of a learning curve right now. We have a backlog of projects so this needs to be a top priority and involves building staff capacity. One of my big goals for the year, hopefully I’ll make a lot of progress on it soon, is to develop an understanding of what the community is like here and how best the park service can support that. .
What are your top priorities for the Birch Bay area?
I’m trying to get a sense of how the parks we currently have fit in with the goals of what the community wants to see. I think we have a great plan for Birch Bay Beach Park. I’m excited to move this project forward. We need to work on raising funds to implement the plan in stages. Trying to start the first phase elements of this plan is really important for next year.
Do you know when Birch Bay Beach Park might be finished?
It will probably take a few years. The cost estimate we did in 2016 was about $6 million fully executed and it’s been a few years so there’s been some inflation.
What do you think of the installation of public toilets in Birch Bay?
That’s a big part of this plan for Birch Bay Beach Park and it’s definitely one of the things in phase one that we want to address, in addition to parking. I try to take a holistic view, step back and think about how the parks we have in this region are connected.
Where have you visited Whatcom County since you started the job?
I have been everywhere. The only place I haven’t been to yet is Sumas. I have been to Everson, Blaine, Birch Bay, Point Roberts, Lynden, Nooksack and Lake Whatcom. I still have a lot to see, but I’ve probably reached around 60%.
How do you plan to meet the needs of remote areas and rural communities?
My experience in Louisville was trying to pay attention to communities in need, to marginalized communities. Part of my goal is to learn what the needs are. We are fortunate that there has been a lot of planning around health equity. There are a lot of needs related to the different parks and how they could be connected to the trails.
We need to look at some of the needs assessments of our parks that we have done and reinvigorate them. One of my top priorities for the next year is updating the overall parks, recreation and open space plan. It is necessary to obtain additional comments from the public. Part of that, for me, will be looking at communities in outlying areas, what their needs are, how we can serve them, and at least incorporating recommendations into the plan.
What interested you in this field?
I grew up on a farm so I’ve always had an interest in the outdoors and nature. It’s part of my personality to want to raise people who maybe don’t have the same opportunities. I like to look at opportunities where we can help people who, whether it’s young people, elders, or people who may not have the best access to parks, get that access. The intersection of nature and trying to help people live a better life.
Are there any upcoming projects or events we should keep an eye on?
We have done a lot of work at Silver Lake improving the campgrounds, we have active plans to complete some of the shower facilities and move to an additional facility next year. It’s one of the biggest projects we have and it’s probably the one that’s progressing the most. We have a plan at Plantation Rifle Range to reopen the indoor range. There is a project there related to lead contamination issues, so there will be public awareness activities on this. We have a trail connection, EH1, near the Hertz Trail in Lake Whatcom Park. This segment of trail will be completed next year.
What measures do you plan to take to address the impact of outdoor recreation on the environment, such as litter issues, erosion, etc. ?
I am not able to give specifics at this time, but I have a background in resource management. That’s one of the reasons I’m really interested in this job. Finding the balance between approved recreational uses and these environmental impacts is critically important. I know it’s important to the community, especially when it comes to activities in the area around the lakes and the Nooksack River.
The aquatic resources here are of such importance, culturally and economically, beyond the need to protect the environment. I look forward to finding ways to improve the management of the parks so that they are compatible with some of the larger plans regarding the impacts of climate change and flooding.
When you are not working, what kinds of activities do you like to do?
I play guitar, I like to cook, I like foreign languages - I studied Russian and I’m learning Chinese. I like going outside. Before I’m too old and can’t do it anymore, I want to learn to ride a mountain bike, possibly take sailing lessons, and I’m very interested in fishing and hiking.
Do you have a favorite trail so far?
I can’t wait to go to Chuckanut Mountain. I won’t have a favourite. I will have many favorites.
Can you provide an update on the Bellingham Bay to Baker trail? What sort of advancement would you like to see made on the project as Director of Parks?
I can’t really talk about it right now. I’m still trying to get a feel for all of our different trail systems and planning. Haven’t had too many meetings on the Bay to Baker trail yet, but hope to turn to this.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I look forward to working with the community. It is important that the community realizes how powerful it is. Depending on how they approach agencies, and vice versa, we can all be swimming in the same direction. Coming to the table with positive ideas and a collaborative mindset is really what will make the difference. I am excited about Birch Bay. I recognize that there are great community leaders who have done a lot of great work over a number of years trying to get things done.
The public is invited to meet Bennett Knox at one of the following 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, 2:00 p.m. – Hovander Homestead Park, Group Picnic Shelter
- Wednesday, November 2, 4:00 p.m. – Point Roberts Community Center
- Wednesday, November 9, 6:00 p.m. – Josh VanderYacht Memorial Park, Community Hall