Bigfoot Encounters

Sasquatch - Sensitive Area
Want to develop a King County wetland?
Make it comfy for Bigfoot

In the Pacific Northwest, political battles on development and use of natural resources versus protection of wildlife such as salmon and spotted owls are not new. But King County's official protection of habitat for one particular species of wildlife is a delightful example of a bureaucratic bumble. A Bigfooted bumble at that.

In 1988, Jim Baum bought a long retired dairy farm on 17 acres of ridge property a few miles west of the Issaquah-Hobart Road in Maple Valley. Baum's plan for buying the place was to supplement his income as a home-remodeling contractor by extending fences over half the property to board horses, and to plant hay on the other half of the property. Baum says all proposed plans check out fine at the County Courthouse at the time of purchase.

A couple of years later, before he'd managed to do much of anything with his place, Baum came across an opportunity to buy a hay farm in Eastern Washington. Baum found a potential buyer for his Maple Valley spread. The buyer went to the court house to check out the records, came back to Baum, told him the deal was off, and handed Baum a stack of papers showing that the county had designated most of Baum's 17 acres as a wetland protected by the King County Sensitive Areas Ordinance (SAO).

"The County Council passed the SAO a year after I bought my place, which means that its restrictions were being developed at the same time I got assurances from the county that I could work my property. Now, it's a class-2 wetland, which means if my dogs run out there, it's illegal."

What can he do with his wetlands property? "I can enhance it as habitat for species present on the 'King County Wetlands Inventory Species List,'" Baum says, as he pulls a multipage county document out of a notebook. The document lists the Latin and lay names for hundreds of species of plants, birds, and mammals that the document states has been observed during wetland field visits. "I can enhance it as habitat for, say, Sasquatch," he says, pointing indignantly to the mammal section of the list where there, between "beaver" and "bobcat," is "Bipedus Giganticus--Sasquatch."

Sasquatch? As in Bigfoot? King County protects habitat for Bigfoot? "Sasquatch is part of the Northwest's folklore" says Clint Lank, surrounded by half-packed boxes in his Smith Tower office as he is preparing to be reorganized elsewhere from his position as acting chief of the county's Agriculture and Resource Lands section. Yes, the King County Wetlands Inventory Species list is genuine, and yes, it includes Bipedus Giganticus. "This list was compiled from a variety of sources, including citizen observations. There's no judgment made about whether or not the observations were real or imagined. There have been many sightings of Sasquatch over the years in the Northwest, so it's not surprising it's on the list." Lank offers assurance that the county has not denied any development permits based specifically on critical Sasquatch habitat.

At least not yet. "You know, there are species of gorillas that weren't discovered until the 1930's. There may be some species out there we don't know about, and it may be Sasquatch," he says with a chuckle.

Indeed, there have been innumerable tales of Bigfoot sightings for centuries. The earliest Sasquatch reports were local Indian legends. One of the most recent in newsworthy Bigfoot sightings came from Wes Sumerlin a hunting guide from Walla Walla, who says he's stumbled upon Bigfoot more than once. "Oh yeah, this is the sixth time I've seen 'em since '61," he says as he relates his latest encounter last summer, this time with a veritable bevy of Bigfoot. Sumerlin describes how he and a couple of hunting buddies were in the Blue Mountains along the Washington/Idaho border when they practically collided with two Sasquatch amid thick
forest underbrush.

Sumerlin says the two beasts quickly eluded their surprised visitors. The hunting party collected tufts of the creatures' hair snagged on brush. Samples of the hair were went to Ohio State University, where Dr. Paul Fuerst, associated professor of molecular genetics, is running a DNA forensics research project regarding the identification of animals killed by poachers. Dr. Fuerst would not be interviewed on the record, explaining that the scientific journals and his university higher-ups are frowning on media discussion of this of this project until the results are completed and published. Fuerst was, however, eager to correct one media report that his research had determined the hair was not from a "nonhuman primate." Fuerst said further testing had re-established the possibility that it was. And Fuerst insisted that, if Sumerlin's Sasquatch fur is a hoax, the project's methodology would expose it.

Sumerlin is delighted that Fuerst expresses such confidence in the research project, and can't wait until the evidence shows that he "is not a crazy old man," and that Bigfoot lives. Sumerlin has done research of his own on the migratory wanderings of Sasquatch, and believes they could inhabit the higher elevations of the western Cascades. However, when asked what he thinks of King County protecting habitat for Sasquatch, Sumerlin demurs, "I'm not so sure that's the government's place," he says. "They (Sasquatch) have two legs; if it gets to crowded for 'em, I think they'd move."

Even less enthusiastic about preserving Sasquatch habitat in the suburbs is Chris Vance, chair of the King County Council's Growth Management, Housing, and Environment Committee. "I'm a very conservative Republican, but I helped pass our growth management plan here in King County, and I support it," says Vance. "What we're down to today is not debating whether we need wetlands protection or the protection of wildlife; Of course we do. Now we're down to discussing the details, and if you look at the details, any reasonable person would argue that having habitat protected for a mythical creature like Sasquatch is stupid! "

But useful, perhaps, for Vance. He and council members have been escalating demands for a "culture change" in the way county departments deal with citizens' problems and concerns with the county's labyrinthine land use codes. It took three years of prodding and a Vance threat to force the county to buy Jim Baum's property in order to get the county to supply the county assessor's office with information needed to change Baum's assessment. Fuming that he still hasn't been able to sell his place for as much as he paid for it before it became a Bigfoot reserve, Baum recounts a meeting where one official smugly assured him that there is a fair market for protected wetlands. Baum then offered her a commission and a percentage if she could find such a buyer.

The director of the county Department of Development and Environmental Services, Bob Derrick, winces at the prospect of a public guffaw over the county's protection of habitat for Sasquatch. Derrick believes it was someone's joke from a long time ago, and says he'd have it removed from the wetlands inventory species list if it were worth the cost of the process to do so. Vance agrees it was probably a prank but says he's seen many other similarly silly administrative antics that illustrate what he calls "this bureaucracy's arrogance in dealing with people whose land is being locked up." Vance wonders if the bureaucratic bumble might be humbled if the public gets a glimpse of the county's Bigfoot in its mouth.

By Ken Vincent, Eastside Week Jan. 31, 1996
Credit: John Green/Tim Olson

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