KP Forest Once Inhabited by ‘Outsider Artists’ Protected Forever

Public trails will be built on the 60-acre property adjacent to the undeveloped Haley State Park land. “It’s what a Northwest forest should look like.”


From second through ninth grade, Jesica Sweedler DeHart lived in an off-grid cabin in the woods near Jackson Lake Road.

The cabin, built by her mother Rivkah Sweedler and her mother’s artistic partner Walter Barkas, had no running water. She remembers that when electricity arrived, they found themselves wishing it would go out. They missed the candles and kerosene lanterns.

“As a child, it was magical and fun and adventurous,” she said. “It was like ‘Little House on the Prairie.’”

From the hand-wrought home, Sweedler and Barkas carved life-sized wood sculptures of animals like goats and dogs and masks of cedar fiber. They sold through a gallery in Seattle and were written up in national newspapers. “They were outsider artists,” Sweedler DeHart said. “They had an outsider career and life.”

At that point, in the 1980s, the Barkas family had owned the 60-acre property for over 30 years. On March 15 of this year, the land was acquired by Great Peninsula Conservancy with funding from the latest round of Pierce County Conservation Futures. An anonymous donor provided a necessary supplemental match.

“It’s what a Northwest forest should look like,” said Ali Querin, conservation project manager for GPC. “What I think of as a Key Peninsula forest, with huckleberries and big conifers and some madrones and big-leaf maples mixed in.”

The property, which adjoins the 270-acre undeveloped Haley State Park property, has been unlogged for many decades.

It sits on the narrowest part of the peninsula, what Querin called a pinch point. She said GPC sees such pinch points as critical for conservation, as increasing development makes islands of habitat. At such points, the ability of animal species to move up and down the peninsula, which is necessary for healthy populations and climate resilience, could easily be lost.

Long-term, GPC expects to merge the property with the Haley property, to be managed as a single unit. In the meantime, GPC plans to develop public trails following the removal of the cabin. Trail planning and construction may take several years. Querin said it makes sense for the trails to tie into Haley land trails.

Pierce County’s Conservation Futures program requires public access. A property tax levy that as of 2021 totaled 0.03 1/2 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value and generated about $5 million in revenue. Conservation Futures “preserves open space, wetlands, wildlife habitat, timberland, and agricultural lands to benefit Pierce County residents now and in the future,” according to its website.

“The program, established in 1991, strives to ensure a high quality of life as Pierce County experiences growth in population and development.”

Washington State Parks did not respond to requests for comment on this article by press time.

For Sweedler DeHart, the property her mother eventually co-owned with the Barkas family was always destined for conservation. Walter passed away in the ’90s and her mother in 2022. “We could have had it bulldozed. There were timber companies that wanted to come in and log it and put in mobile homes or whatever,” she said.

“Protecting the land and keeping it in perpetuity as forested land was so important to my mom and Walter.”

Querin said the family’s patience was crucial to the land’s conservation. The sale took two years from initial conversations to closing, much of that dictated by the timing and process required for Conservation Futures funding. Querin said many sellers would not be able to wait.

Sweedler DeHart said she and the Barkas family were in complete agreement, committed and united, about the land’s future.

Growing up there, the land always felt connected with the Haley property.

“We called it the Red Gate Road. If you kept going down our driveway, it became a walking trail. You came to the red gate, which over the years fell apart, but you could walk through the red gate onto the Haley property and all the way down to the lagoon,” she said.

“That was a daily walk. We did it all year round. You got to know all the trees. You got to know the little creek, and you got to see it change. The skunk cabbage or the trilliums would come up. In the snow, you would cross-country ski down there.”

For Sweedler DeHart, the lack of a road was a big part of the beach’s allure. “There’s something about getting to a place when you have to actually walk through the woods to get there.”

Her mother knew each Steller’s jay that lived around the cabin. She would go chanterelle hunting. Sweedler DeHart remembered the forest in terms of seasons: nettle season, thimbleberry season, huckleberry season, seaweed season.

“The dream was always to connect and keep the Barkas property and the Haley property as a pathway to that beach,” she said. “To walk that trail is to know all the plants.”