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Friday, May 14, 2021

Want to camp in the arb? Think again

WWU facilities management weighs in on student’s camping in the arb

Two chairs sit on top of a scenic cliff in the Sehome Arboretum. This set-up and other structures populate the arboretum as more people use it as an escape from staying at home. // Photo by Thomas Hughes
Two chairs sit on top of a scenic cliff in the Sehome Arboretum. This set-up and other structures populate the arboretum as more people use it as an escape from staying at home. // Photo by Thomas Hughes

By Phoenix McAuley

Though strictly prohibited by city and university officials, stories of students camping in the Sehome Hill Arboretum have been going around Western’s campus for years, according to students. Evidence of campouts can be seen throughout the arboretum. 

The arboretum is a 175-acre forest that runs along Western’s campus. The park is jointly managed by the university and the city of Bellingham.

“Just as is the case with all city parks, camping is not a permitted activity,” said John Furman, the facilities manager for Western’s campus.

But, according to Furman, there aren’t enough resources to patrol the park at night and look for campers. 

Campers can face up to an $800 fine, according to the city municipal code, but Furman said that it depends on how the campers were caught. Students caught by university authorities will be charged through the Office of Student Life. University officials turn non-student campers over to city authorities. Campers caught by city park officials or Bellingham police are fined in accordance with Bellingham Municipal Code 8.04, 8.16.

Camping in the arboretum has been a common activity amongst the younger student population, according to some students, including Jared Manning, a second-year student.

“I never went camping in the arb myself but I know that my suitemates went a couple times. It’s a thing people do I guess,” Manning said.

Western alumnus Cameron Bradley has camped in the arb. He said his friend group would semi-regularly go out into the arb and have a good time.

“Not sure about the broader student body, but me and lots of my friends did it,” Bradley said. “It was mostly during my freshman year while I lived in Fairhaven. Sometimes a group of friends would go out with a few tents and we would have a small fire. Other times I would go out alone. Sometimes we would go up and have a small fire without camping.” 

Bradley said that it’s not a big deal to camp in the arboretum as long as people pick up everything they bring in, and make sure to give the homeless residents of the forest some space. They were never bothered by the authorities and never ran into any issues with homeless people, he said.

“[The] best practice is to give them a wide berth and not go through their camps, I mean how would you like it if someone started walking through your living room?” Bradley said.

The homeless are the more permanent residents of the arboretum, according to the city park office.

Furman said the main concern from the facilities management is the environmental aspect. He said that campers in the arb may leave garbage behind and damage their environment. 

“You have to consider that we all share the arb,”  Furman said. “There are plenty of campsites in the area that are way more exciting than the Sehome Hill Arboretum that students can just as easily drive to and not endanger the arboretum.”

Alia Kahn, an environmental studies professor at Western, recommends that all campers abide by the Leave No Trace code of ethics. Following the code protects the environment from all sorts of harm, ranging from water pollution to wildlife encroachment. 

“I do believe that it is possible for there to be camping allowed in the arb as long as it was highly regulated,” Kahn said. “This would likely be done by designating well-spaced sites in high-use areas. Student’s would have to pass an outdoor ethics class at the rec center to be certified to camp in the arb, then they could reserve one of the designated sites for a night.” 

Kahn said that what would make this tricky is the joint administration by the city parks and the university. There would need to be some sort of agreement between the two before some kind of recreation plan could be implemented in the arb. 

Camping in the arb might become allowed down the road under heavy regulation, but for now it is prohibited. There are several other spots in the Bellingham area that students can use when they have a hankering to go camping. Gov. Jay Inslee recently approved camping as a safe activity during the state’s first reopening in June.

Furman suggested Panorama Point for people who don’t mind the hour long drive to Mt. Baker. He said that if someone is looking for something more local, Larrabee has plenty of campsites.

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