A walk in the woods: One neighbor’s quest to clean up Arnold Park

Peter Bracchi is determined to get the city to clean up an urban watershed overrun with homeless campers


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a series on Vancouver’s Arnold Park, the homeless camps there, and what the city says about the situation.

VANCOUVER — Peter Bracchi is, without question, a thorn in the side of Vancouver city leaders. But, as the retired geologist and software engineer puts it, “the environment can’t call 9-1-1.”

Bracchi moved from Ridgefield to Minnehaha three years ago following retirement.

Initially, he says, he went on daily walks in Arnold Park to bird watch and enjoy the interesting geography of the urban forest.

“When I first started getting into this area it was really nice and pristine,” says Bracchi, “and the deeper I got into the woods, I started finding people camping in little back areas.”

Initially, Bracchi says he took his concerns to Vancouver Police, but was told there was little they could do about the illegal campers in the park. He says the advice he received ruffled his feathers.

“Don’t go off the trail,” Bracchi recounts, scoffing. “It’s like, ‘what?’”

An overturned Target shopping cart and a pile of trash mark the west entrance to Arnold Park in Vancouver. Photo by Mike Schultz
An overturned Target shopping cart and a pile of trash mark the west entrance to Arnold Park in Vancouver. Photo by Mike Schultz

So the barrel-chested former computer programmer took his mind for data and went to work combing through city records, and pestering officials for public information on Arnold Park and the city’s response to the homeless living there.

“I started out playing everything by the book,” says Bracchi during a recent walk in the woods. “I couldn’t believe some of the answers I was getting.”

These days, though, Bracchi says he generally doesn’t get answers.

“I’ve definitely made an enemy out of the city,” he admits. “I’ve tried to be reasonable, but what happens is no city leaders … (City Manager) Eric (Holmes) won’t talk to me, (Mayor) Anne (McEnerny-Ogle) won’t talk to me. I get to talk to the low-level people, and it’s a telephone game to the top to the people for the answers as to what’s going on.”

Bracchi says the more difficult it has become to get answers, the more difficult he’s made it on elected officials.

“I’ll pick on them for anything at this point,” he readily admits. “Game on. Game on.”

A child’s toy lies abandoned along Burnt Bridge Creek trail in Vancouver’s Arnold Park. Photo by Mike Schultz
A child’s toy lies abandoned along Burnt Bridge Creek trail in Vancouver’s Arnold Park. Photo by Mike Schultz

Burnt Bridge Creek Greenway

Arnold Park, named after H.W. Arnold, an educator and attorney who donated much of the land the park sits on, sits between Leverich Park and Saint Johns Road, north of SR-500. While it appears on maps as a park, and is zoned as such, you’ll find no mention of it on the Parks Department website. In fact, it appears the city has recently started actively moving away from the name Arnold Park. 

Vancouver Watersheds Alliance, which has done a number of tree plantings there, told us they were asked just last week by Parks Department officials to no longer refer to the area as Arnold Park. ClarkCountyToday.com has reached out to the city to clarify their position, and why they made that request. Parks Director Julie Hannon is on extended leave, and other officials have not yet returned our request for comment.

Area resident Peter Bracchi looks at garbage in a ravine at Arnold Park in Vancouver. Photo by Chris Brown
Area resident Peter Bracchi looks at garbage in a ravine at Arnold Park in Vancouver. Photo by Chris Brown

While people still use Burnt Bridge Creek trail, there is no obvious way to get into Arnold Park. Roads at both ends have been blocked off, so walking or biking in are the only options. 

The former park is now classified as an Environmental Sensitive Area, and signs have been posted along the pathway advising people to stay out of the woods due to “active restoration in progress.”

But alongside nearly every one of those signs, installed nearly two years ago, are pathways leading into the woods on either side. Following any one of them will usually lead to campsites that either appear to be active, or at least recently used. Blankets, tents, tarps, piles of trash, and even children’s toys litter many of the sites. A few sleeping people could be seen in the brush at a few of the sites.

Bracchi says he recently counted eight active camps in the park, and reported them to Vancouver Police. We will talk more about their response to the situation in Part Two of this series.

A homeless encampment is shown here underneath SR-500 along the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail in Vancouver. Photo by Mike Schultz
A homeless encampment is shown here underneath SR-500 along the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail in Vancouver. Photo by Mike Schultz

Feeling unsafe

Bracchi isn’t the only one fed up with conditions at the park.

A neighbor who has lived nearby for 55 years says she’s contemplated moving in recent years as problems have gotten worse. She agreed to talk, but didn’t want to be identified out of fear of retaliation. We’ll call her “Betty” for this story.

Recently, “Betty” says, her mules began acting up in the barn. As she stepped outside to see what was happening, she noticed a man exiting the barn carrying a saddle.

“I yelled at him and told him to get out of there and he dropped the saddle and ran,” she says. “And then I walked around the side of the barn, and he had another saddle laying in the grass.”

Peter Bracchi of Vancouver checks out an abandoned homeless campsite along Burnt Bridge Creek in Vancouver’s Arnold Park. Photo by Chris Brown
Peter Bracchi of Vancouver checks out an abandoned homeless campsite along Burnt Bridge Creek in Vancouver’s Arnold Park. Photo by Chris Brown

The thief, she jokes, missed out on the real prize inside the barn. Bottles of whiskey piled up on a tarp in the loft, a collection of her husband who passed away a couple of years ago.

“Betty” says equipment has also been stolen out of a shed used by the city’s Parks Department, and half a dozen campers were recently found in an adjacent field on private property. And, she adds, there seems to be some sort of organization behind many of the camps.

“There’s a car … that brings stuff to them,” she says. “And then there’s a six passenger pickup that comes and brings things to them, and helps them carrying like coolers, and propane tanks and food and all kinds of things down and then he leaves.”

There has also been an increase in needles left behind, often near the path where children ride their bikes.

Aside from that concern, “Betty” says there are serious issues over hygiene in and around the park.

“They don’t even dig a hole to go to the bathroom. They just go to the bathroom right alongside their tents, and there’s toilet paper and all kinds of stuff, you know, even right next to their camp.”

The contents of an apparently stolen recycling can are strewn around along Burnt Bridge Creek Trail in Vancouver’s Arnold Park. Photo by Mike Schultz
The contents of an apparently stolen recycling can are strewn around along Burnt Bridge Creek Trail in Vancouver’s Arnold Park. Photo by Mike Schultz

She says at one point someone stole an old toilet seat she’d set out on a stump as a Halloween decoration, apparently to use in the woods. There was even a toilet seat suspended over Burnt Bridge Creek at one time, allowing people to do their business directly into the water flowing below.

Vancouver Police, along with Public Works and the Parks Department, do occasionally come through and chase people from the park.

“You’re not really, you know, accomplishing anything even by by running them out,” says “Betty,” “because they turn around and just come right back in.”

Bracchi has peppered officials with numerous emails citing the city’s camping ordinance, the Shoreline Protection Act, and even reached out to Bonneville Power Administration, which owns part of the land where high-power transmission lines run.

He accuses Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes of turning a blind eye to lawbreakers at Arnold Park and elsewhere, so long as it means those people aren’t setting up tents downtown, where the city is investing millions in a new waterfront area and tourism efforts.

“What do you do with people that break the law?” he says, laughing in frustration. “You gotta change the law then, I guess. What are you gonna do?”

Tomorrow, in part two of our series, we’ll focus on what the city’s new Homeless Resource Manager, Jackie St. Louis, says about Arnold Park and Vancouver’s overall approach to the homeless crisis.

Also read part two and three:

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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