Whatcom Watch, a grassroots environmental newspaper in Bellingham, is in its 24th year of publication. It is the result of many hours of dedicated volunteer labor each month. A few thousand copies are printed and distributed to over 50 locations countywide. The estimated readership is 7,500.
Whatcom Watch, both in its print and online editions is an expression of the freedom of speech guaranteed by our constitution over 200 years ago. Articles published in the paper typically cover local governmental and environmental issues. The opportunity to be published in Whatcom Watch is open to all citizens who are concerned about an issue and who want to write an article. Money to continue printing the paper each month comes from donations, subscriptions, and advertising.
Whatcom Watch Celebrates Ten-Year Anniversary in 2002
by Ken Russell
The first issue of Whatcom Watch was published in May 1992 and the paper has developed over the past ten years into a well-read publication.
The year 1992 was a relatively quiet one for news and politics in Whatcom County. However, citizen’s frustrations with politicians were growing due to the lack of response from the local government on issues that affected their community. The previous ten years had seen rapid development in Bellingham and the surrounding county, with only muted lip service to environmental protections and quality of life issues.
Many people had moved to the Bellingham area because of its beautiful natural amenities and small-town character, and many natives also wanted to keep it that way. But large commercial development was beginning to transform beautiful Whatcom County, putting it on a path leading to the traffic-choked asphalt sprawl typical of the south Puget Sound megalopolis.
Citizens Felt Voiceless
Citizens concerned about environmental degradation, urban sprawl, and quality of life issues felt increasingly voiceless. Local political leaders and bureaucrats often sided with large industries and private economic interests. The Bellingham Herald and other local media often overlooked or over-simplified issues of development lack of planning and industrial pollution.
It was increasingly evident that citizens’ attempts to have a say in shaping the future of Whatcom County were ignored by an entrenched old-boy network with an attitude that only it knew what was best for the future of the county.
Citizen groups had spontaneously formed to oppose policies and schemes that favored powerful economic interests at the expense of the majority. Some of these issues included development in the Cordata area, Georgia-Pacific’s unregulated dumping of toxic waste in wetlands, and city annexation of county land ripe for development by real estate interests.
Feeling that decision makers were ignoring their concerns, a few people stated talking. They agreed that there was a need to communicate between groups trying to democratize public policy on these and other issues; there was a need to inform the public of what was happening.
Three women, Lorena Havens, Rebecca Meloy, and Sherilyn Wells started talking over the phone and decided to publish a newsletter that would serve as a clearinghouse and forum for people concerned about the many issues that were arising in the city and county. They soon met to work out the details.
As a result, the first Whatcom Watch, Issue 1, appeared in May of 1992. A six page back-to-back photocopy, it began with these words:
This is a critical time for Whatcom County. The WHATCOM WATCH is dedicated to preserving the quality of life in Whatcom County by maintaining a true balance between that quality of life, growth, farmland, forests, and fish and wildlife. We will do this by serving as an information network between citizens, neighborhood groups, agencies, and our elected officials. We plan to record “issue votes” in our councils.
The first issue brought attention to some of the problems the editors felt were being ignored or taken lightly by local media and public officials. These stories included: progress on the Critical Areas Ordinance required by the state Growth Management Act; development of forested lands southeast of Fairhaven; airport expansion and the destruction of wetlands; Lake Whatcom water quality; and Sudden Valley sewer expansion, among others.
One thing has remained constant-—since the first issue, the Watch has been largely produced by a group of volunteers. The articles, layout, editing and distribution were and still are provided by individuals on their own time and often at their own expense for the good of the community.
Whatcom Watch Goes Online
In the subsequent years, Whatcom Watch has evolved to its present state. A notable change came with Volume 7, Issue 1 (January, 1998), when John Servais provided space on his NWCitizen site for the articles of each issue. In 1999, the Watch got its own domain name and website. Since it began, the Whatcom Watch Online web site has had a steadily growing readership.
Whatcom Watch Online not only provides everyone with Internet access the ability to read the Watch, it also allows past issues (beginning with the January, 1998 issue) to be easily retrieved by readers with online access.
Whatcom Watch will continue to be a forum for local writers and organizations that want to improve our community and environment. It’s our intent to serve as a grassroots information forum dedicated to preserving Whatcom County’s quality of life. The three women who began a community paper ten years ago for people concerned about Whatcom County made a difference. You can make a difference too!
Whatcom Watch is a volunteer print and online newspaper that covers issues of environment, media and government primarily in Whatcom County. It is supported by individual contributions and local business advertising. While the paper presents views not often covered by other publications, it nevertheless endeavors to be as fair as possible in selecting a presentation of challenging ideas. It can only achieve this with the active involvement of its readership and reader response is encouraged. Toward this end, we would hope that the Watch serves as a community forum. Editors reserve the right, however, to edit all submissions for accuracy, length and clarity of expression. While opinions expressed in articles need not reflect the views of editors, the Watch strives to present material that is of value and concern to our community.