In the middle of Kitsap County between East Bremerton and Silverdale is located one of the most outstanding urban natural-park spaces in the United States. It is a 570-acre site known as the Illahee Preserve.
Owned by Kitsap County, the Illahee Preserve is managed by the county’s parks department in conjunction with a nonprofit group of supporters known as the Illahee Forest Preserve. It’s a group of dedicated volunteers who care deeply about this land and help keep the trails clean, as well as raise funds to purchase additional land.
The park is a perfect place to hike on miles of trails or simply enjoy the wildlife and birds. You literally feel as if you are hiking up in the mountains while being only a few blocks from big-box stores and busy highways.
It all started back in 1889 when the state of Washington designated this property as part of its program of trust lands for schools. The Department of Natural Resources managed the program for the benefit of funding the state school system, with timber harvested to provide funds for public schools.
During the ’70s, there was a major effort in many communities to save the lands that had been in the school trust program so they could be preserved and retained in their natural state for the benefit of the local community.
In 2001, Kitsap County purchased the land at the urging of many local citizens who did not want the land sold for development. The property was at 350 acres at the time. Some of the trust land had been sold off in pieces for development, but most has been retained and recently added onto, including the donated Rolling Hills Golf Course.
Today, the original 350 acres has been expanded to 570 acres. Much of the funding raised for the additional land was due in part to the effort of state House Speaker Frank Chopp, who grew up playing in these woods.
The East Bremerton Rotary has also played a major role in supporting the park. The volunteer nonprofit group currently has a fundraising drive called The Lost Continent (thelostcontinent.org) with a goal of raising $2 million to secure an additional 40 acres for the park.
Jim Aho, one of the volunteer leaders who truly has a passion for the preservation and expansion of this park, describes the experience “as a walk in the woods where one can get away from their daily life and see 55 species of birds, walk by a fish-bearing stream, run into wildlife — all within a mile of a major highway in Central Kitsap.” He can be contacted at 360-479-1049 if you are interested in becoming a volunteer. There’s always a need for people to maintain the trails, pick up trash or help with the nonprofit board activity.
Half of the Illahee Preserve is in active use today, visited daily by more than 200 people who hike and enjoy the natural experience. The other half is part of the undeveloped watershed that drains into Puget Sound and is critical to the management of natural resources. The Illahee Preserve is one of the reasons Kitsap County can experience population and economic growth while preserving its quality of life.