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Mitchell Hill, historic military road, could become part of national park when federal budget is approved
Mitchell Hill, a 312-acre chunk of land that includes trails and a pristine portion of road built beginning in 1853 by the Hudson's Bay Co., is expected to become part of San Juan Island National Historical Park once Congress approves the 2010 federal budget.
The fiscal year began Oct. 1, but budget approval is being held up by the debate on health care reform. The 2009 budget wasn't approved until April.
Still, Peter Dederich, superintendent of San Juan Island National Historical Park, is cautiously optimistic that Mitchell Hill will soon be part of the park's English Camp. He said acquisition of Mitchell Hill — which is owned by the state Department of Natural Resources and will cost $6 million — will result in federal protection of the hill's historical resources.
Within the 312 acres is a portion of the road that troops used to travel between American and English camps during the joint military occupation of 1859-1872. The road was initially built as a sheep run by Hudson's Bay Co. and Cowichan laborers, and later improved by troops. Visible along portions of the road is rip-rap — rock placed by British troops to reinforce the road — as well as wheel ruts from wagons that once rolled along the road.
Mitchell Hill also supports various native plants and Garry oaks.
"The military road, in essence, captures the period before the U.S. took formal possession of San Juan Island when the boundary dispute was resolved," said National Park historian Mike Vouri, author of three books about the joint military occupation era.
Vouri said Gov. James Douglas and a work crew initiated the first work on the trail, which became a sheep highway linking the grazing areas on the north and south ends of the island. American and British troops further developed the trail in the 1860s during the military occupation to facilitate communication between their camps.
"The military road symbolized peacekeeping, it tied one end of island with the other," Vouri said. "This is very much a part of the island's heritage."
Besides its historical value, Mitchell Hill is also treasured by bicyclists, hikers and horseback riders.
David Dehlendorf, chairman of the San Juan Island Trails Committee, said the committee hopes to work with the national park to develop a management plan for the area. He said he hopes horses and non-motorized bikes will continue to be allowed to use the hill's trails.
Dederich said acquisition of Mitchell Hill will be followed by a planning process to determine "appropriate visitor activities," how trails will be maintained, and how the overall area will be managed. He said interpretive or trail signage could be installed. He said that once Mitchell Hill becomes part of the national park, the Code of Federal Regulations will apply, and "some of those regulations are stricter than the state's."
The money to acquire Mitchell Hill was included in the federal budget in May. At the time, Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, called the inclusion "great news for San Juan County, Northwest Washington and the over 250,000 people who visit the San Juan Island National Historical Park each year."
Making Mitchell Hill a part of San Juan Island National Historical Park has long had a broad range of local support, from officials to residents. Supporters include the National Park Service, San Juan County, DNR, and the San Juan Island Trails Committee.