Park may build on its golf heritage

ARLINGTON - For former dairyman Rick Witscher, Cloverdale Farm was a field of greens - and fairways, tees and wetlands doubling as water hazards.

It was the wetlands that did him in.

Although Witscher won kudos for his organic golf course, even landing on the cover of Smithsonian magazine, it turned out his enterprise damaged coho-salmon habitat.

Now Snohomish County, which bought the 112-acre farm in 1997, is repairing the wetlands and salmon streams that Witscher tinkered with to make room for his par-4 holes.

Although the nine-hole golf course is closed, it may eventually reopen as a par-3 layout about half its original size. The park also would include a link in a planned Arlington-to-Darrington trail and new habitat along the Stillaguamish River for young salmon and trout.

Former fairways now have hundreds of tiny cedar, hemlock, dogwood and birch trees recently planted by Adopt-A-Stream Foundation volunteers.

Rubber boots, not golf shoes, are the recommended apparel for visitors as the pastures revert to a marshy state. It could be at least a year before the golf course is reopened and two years before the Arlington-to-Cloverdale section of the new trail is completed. Meanwhile, the property is closed to the public.

Nobody questions the way Witscher managed his course, which he crafted in 1994 from a former dairy pasture on 115th Avenue Northeast, northeast of Arlington. Although the construction filled in parts of wetlands, his maintenance eschewed fertilizers and pesticides that are lethal to wild salmon. Instead of manicured fairways, he opted for a Scottish-style course with natural grasses and rough contours.

Cloverdale golfers were serenaded by songbirds and pond frogs, and treated to the sight of soaring hawks. Snow-capped Cascades frame the valley.

"It's a magical spot," said Witscher, who lives in the Arlington area and is now a national consultant on organic agricultural ventures and golf courses.

Snohomish County paid $665,000 for the farm - about $200,000 less than its appraised value as a golf course. That's because Witscher never bothered to obtain permits or zoning variances needed to fill wetlands, clear acres of trees and put a golf course on agricultural land, officials said.

Witscher accepted the property's appraised value as farmland but is amused, and a bit dumbfounded, by the county's attitude toward the way he developed his course. Cloverdale's greens and fairways were little more than natural grasses mowed short, he said.

"So the greens were too close to the ditch," he said, referring to a man-straightened creek where Adopt-A-Stream is planting trees. "There could be a cow defecating there, and that would be OK. . . . What's the point here?"

An abandoned railroad grade covered with blackberry bushes divides the farm, with the golf course on the east and riverside pastures on the west.

The county's future 27-mile Whitehorse Trail between Arlington and Darrington will run through the farm along the rail route. Additional trails across the farm might link the Whitehorse Trail to the Stillaguamish River.

The county might let the Stillaguamish reclaim the farm's western pastures, said senior habitat biologist Darrell Smith. The county has applied for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funds to dredge side channels along the river's edge, creating habitat for bull trout and young chinook, coho and sockeye salmon.

Adopt-A-Stream is joining Snohomish County to design and plant forested wetlands, using a $37,000 grant from Gov. Gary Locke's Salmon Recovery Board. The county has budgeted $160,000 for the Cloverdale project.

The county's tentative design for a nine-hole public course uses three of Witscher's original greens and three of his tees.

"I think it would be terrific to demonstrate how you can have a golf course co-exist with a salmon stream," said Tom Murdoch, the nonprofit Adopt-A-Stream Foundation's executive director. "It would be one of the most environmentally friendly golf courses in the country."

Rob Lindsey, general manager of the county-owned Kayak Point Golf Course north of the Tulalip Reservation, helped with the county's new design. Although serious golfers probably would avoid the short course, he said, it would be great for beginners.

Witscher's farming roots run deep. He grew up on a Marysville farm. Cedarcrest Middle School now sits where his family's dairy herd once grazed. His family was named Snohomish County Dairy Family of the Year in 1988, after the farm moved to its current location.

"My family is happy that the county wanted to buy the farm," he said. "It's a beautiful piece of property. For it to be part of the park system forever is wonderful."