Christensen wears multiple hats in shadow of Mount Spokane
Next Sunday, hundreds of nordic skiers and spectators will converge on Mount Spokane State Park for the 35th annual Langlauf 10k Cross Country Ski Race – a highlight of the park’s busiest season.
Steve Christensen will be there, making sure everything goes smoothly, and selling Sno-Park permits to the many motorists sure to arrive without one.
Christensen is an avid nordic skier. He’s also manager of Mount Spokane State Park, where a perennial shortage of maintenance money is as predictable as tangled skis at Langlauf’s mass start.
He discussed the park’s evolution and its prospects during a recent interview.
S-R: When we were discussing where to meet, I mentioned Manito Park, and you sounded unsure where that was. How long have you lived here?
Christensen: Eleven years – since I became park manager. But I hardly ever come into the city. I stay up north. I’ve had times when I didn’t leave the park for two or three months.
S-R: How long have you been with Washington State Parks?
Christensen: About 27 years.
S-R: How many people visit Mount Spokane State Park during the year?
Christensen: Based on vehicle counts, we estimate anywhere from 400,000 to 750,000 a year. Winter recreation is the biggest draw. Langlauf (Feb. 10 from 8:30 to 1 p.m.) and Souper Bowl Sunday (a fundraiser for the Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant, today from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.) are huge. And snowshoeing is really big. On a typical Saturday, there will be 80 vehicles just for snowshoeing, and another 200 in the cross-country lot. (The park expanded its cross-country ski trail system this year to 42 kilometers, or 26 miles.)
S-R: What activities aren’t allowed in the park?
Christensen: Hunting, wood gathering and cutting Christmas trees.
S-R: Do all visitors need a Sno-Park permit in the winter?
Christensen: Yes, to park in a Sno-Park lot. There are places along the road shoulder where you can park with a Discover Pass. But the Discover Pass has made it a nightmare for us to enforce parking, because people think their Discover Pass is the same as a Sno-Park permit, and it’s not. So next year we may require Sno-Park permits for the entire park. (A one-day Sno-Park permit costs $20 or $22, depending on where it is purchased; a season permit costs $40-$42.)
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Christensen: Western Washington.
S-R: Did you have a lot of outdoor experiences?
Christensen: Oh, yeah. When I was kid, I’d take off on my own, hiking and fishing. I lived outside. There were some close encounters with bears and stuff, but I never had anything really bad happen.
S-R: How did you end up in state parks?
Christensen: After I earned a degree in biology from BYU, I got a seasonal job with the (Washington) fisheries department. And when I wasn’t working for them, I had a seasonal job with the parks department. It turned out I liked the parks a lot better. So I got a full-time job as a ranger at Wallace Falls, a small, mostly day-use park on Highway 2 near Stevens Pass.
S-R: What were your responsibilities?
Christensen: Maintaining trails and bridges – a lot of hiking, dealing with injuries and being available when the public was there on weekends.
S-R: When did you get into management?
Christensen: I was made assistant manager at Sequim Bay when I was around 35, and came to Mount Spokane as manager 12 years later.
S-R: What brought you to Mount Spokane?
Christensen: To me it was more of a park setting. A lot of state parks are big campgrounds with unique features, but not a lot of acreage. Mount Spokane is what I call a real park, with natural resources, wildlife and recreation – things I’m attracted to.
S-R: How many people work there?
Christensen: We lost 40 percent of our staff last year to budget cuts, so we’re down to two rangers, one full-time maintenance person, seven temporary equipment operators in the winter who help plow roads, and a couple of temporary park aides.
S-R: How has money been in recent years?
Christensen: Real tight. A lot of building maintenance projects are on hold.
S-R: What’s Mount Spokane’s budget?
Christensen: Around $750,000. Our heavy-equipment budget hasn’t changed in over 20 years, while the cost of fuel, equipment and parts has gone up. There used to be extra money out there for big projects – like fixing roofs or patching roads – but there’s very little of that anymore.
S-R: How has the park itself evolved since you’ve been there?
Christensen: We’ve seen a big increase in human-powered winter recreation. Interest in snowshoeing has really boomed. Snowmobiling has dropped off, mainly because Inland Paper closed off its land to snowmobilers due to the damage that was occurring to their young trees. So now we only have 16 miles of snowmobile trails, compared with the 60 we used to have. And we still get snowmobilers going into areas they don’t belong. Last night at 11:30 I got a call about a lost snowmobiler, so I had to go in and do the search. I found him at 5:50 this morning. I’ve had to do three of those in the past month – snowmobilers either lost or stranded. Luckily, they’ve had cellphones, so I’ve been able to get an idea of their location.
S-R: What other headaches come with the job?
Christensen: Conflicts between different user groups. Snowmobilers in the downhill ski area is one. Mountain bikes not blending well with horseback riders and hikers is another. And not having the money to do what we need to do.
S-R: What’s better than it was 10 years ago, and what’s worse?
Christensen: Funding is worse. What’s better is the trail system. We have close to 100 miles of trails. When I got here, a lot of them went straight down the fall line, so we had erosion problems. My goal has been to make the trails more efficient – which reduces our maintenance load – and to enlist different user groups to help us maintain them.
S-R: What would surprise people most about your job?
Christensen: The number of different hats I wear. One minute I’m stuck behind a computer, managing government funds and making sure all the rules are being followed, and the next minute I may be fixing someone’s busted shoulder.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Christensen: The variety. And doing things outdoors. I’m a runner, so I like running the trails in the summer, seeing which ones need work.
S-R: What do you like least?
S-R: How would you characterize the park’s health today?
Christensen: I think we do a good job of managing the state parks, keeping them beautiful and adjusting to the demands of the different user groups. But we’re at a point right now where, if we don’t get funding from the Legislature, it’s likely that a majority of the parks will close. And this is our centennial year. Our birthday is in March.
S-R: What’s the outlook for park-related careers?
Christensen: I think there will always be opportunities. But when I joined the parks system, being a ranger was a way of life. You lived in the park; your kids grew up in the park. The culture has changed since then. Because of the Discover Pass, we run around collecting fees a lot. It’s a job more than a way of life.
S-R: What sort of personality is best suited for that job?
Christensen: Someone who is versatile, comes across as friendly … and knows how to stretch money as far as possible.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org