Changes Afoot at Popular North-Central Washington Track

By: Bob Spiwak

Led by Deb Wallace, the planning and research manager for the Washington State Parks Department, a public meeting in Winthrop, Wash., was convened in late October to take input regarding a California developer's request to lease state park land.

The lease would encompass 25 acres at Pearrygin Lake Park and enable the developer, McCormack Vineyard Partners, to build six new holes and convert the venerable nine-hole Bear Creek Golf Course into an 18-hole facility.

Bear Creek was the dream of Herman Court, who moved to the picturesque Methow Valley from Seattle in 1949. With help from his son and other interested parties, Court fashioned a three-hole layout in 1965, which he later expanded to four and then to six holes. By 1969, Bear Creek had grown to a full nine. Since its inception, the course offers spectacular views of the North Cascades, while boasting a rating that rivals other 18-hole layouts in the area.

By "area," we're referring to all of north-central Washington. The property in question is in Okanogan County, the largest county in the smallest state west of the Mississippi River and reputed to be the 50th largest in the nation. It has but one 18-hole facility, Alta Lake, while there are three other nine-hole venues. Because of its high elevation and long winters, golf is usually played here only from April to November.

Washington leases several other courses on state land. These, all nine-hole venues according to a Parks official, are incorporated into the parks' system as a whole. The expanded Bear Creek would only occupy about 25 acres of state-owned land for the six new holes, while the other three would occupy land already owned by the course.

The Methow Valley is about 70 miles long in its inhabited reaches. The permanent residents number about 5,000 in an area that runs from 20 miles south of Canada to the Methow River's confluence with the Columbia River. Alta Lake lies close by the rivers' meeting and is situated 45 miles from Bear Creek. The climate in Winthrop is semi-desert, with annual precipitation of about 13 inches, only two of which fall as rain. The Methow River is the prime source of water above and below ground, and the aridity beyond it has been a continuing source of concern for available water.

A dozen miles west of Winthrop, two premier courses were planned in the 1990s. The first went down to defeat because of water issues and legal battles. The then-developer, Methow Recreation, Inc., envisioned a destination ski area, hired well-known course architect Robert Graves to design an 18-hole track, but, because of the roadblocks, sold the property to Lowe Development Corp. Lowe shelved the ski-hill idea and a new course was laid out by architect Bob Cupp. Once again, water was the major issue, and the several hundred acres allotted for the course were ultimately put into conservancy.

Having mentioned two inches of rain, it becomes evident that the remainder falls as snow. And snow is king in the Methow Valley, which in four decades has gone from a farm and ranching economy to a recreational base. One of McCormack Vineyard Partners' proposals is to offer and maintain a ski trail, which would also connect Pearrygin Lake with Davis Lake, about two miles away. The trail would cross the golf course in the non-golf season.

The water issues have been taken into consideration, but it is unclear at this time what is to be done, when, and to what. Attendees at the meeting were enthusiastic about the state's requirement that all wetlands - dry for years - would be rehabilitated. Other, more complex water issues involving neighboring streams and lakes are still under discussion.

While a show of hands at the meeting favored, at first blush, having the 18-hole course, there was a more austere note to the public comment, usually involving other requirements by the state in terms of residential build-out (the developer promises none); the increased cost of playing golf on the new course; and how the new owners would generate any revenue to amortize their investment on a course open only seven months a year. The economic detriments were cited at the meeting by one rancher, who responded to comments made by a project proponent, "If we lose that land (where he runs cattle) it would put me out of business. For me, your dream is my nightmare."

As mentioned earlier, this was a meeting to get a feel for public opinion and the first of many to be scheduled by the state. Several groups, traditionally opposed to any new development in the area, have yet to be heard from. Among these are lawyers and lay people who are skilled in the powers of costly delays and injunctions.

Ken Bevis of the state's Fish and Wildlife department expressed his concerns about diverting stream water to the needs of wetlands and to the expanded golf course; these streams frequently go dry in the summer.

The current bottom line may best be summed up in the slogan of an old Olympia Beer commercial: "It's the water."

Bob Spiwak took up golf in 1953 as a respite from the rigors of selling bibles door-to-door in North Dakota. Though suffering a four-year lapse, he's back to being a fanatical golfer. Now a contributing editor for Cybergolf, Spiwak has written articles for almost every golf magazine in the Western world. Bob's most treasured golf antiquity is a nod he got from Gerald Ford at the 1990 Golf Summit. Spiwak lives in Mazama, Wash., with his wife and several pets next to his fabled ultra-private Whispering Rattlesnakes Golf & Flubbers Club.