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From Awe to Ah-Hah!: 4 Advocates Realize the Power of Their Voices for Trails

When did you realize that trails don’t just appear in the woods? Or that your favorite trail probably exists in part thanks to hikers like you? If you haven't had that "ah-hah!" moment yet, it's understandable. The path towards establishing and protecting trails is winding (much like those trails we love so much). But in the same way that you can lay the foundation for memorable summer adventures by tuning into permit season each year in February, hikers like you can help build a lifetime of adventure by consistently participating in advocacy work.

When did you realize that trails don’t just appear in the woods? Or that your favorite trail probably exists in part thanks to hikers like you?

If you haven't had that "ah-hah!" moment yet, it's understandable. The path towards establishing and protecting trails is winding (much like those trails we love so much). But in the same way that you can lay the foundation for memorable summer adventures by tuning into permit season each year in February, hikers like you can help build a lifetime of adventure by consistently participating in advocacy work.

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Work toward trails for everyone, forever is a long path. But it's not about the journey, it's about the destination! Photo by Samantha Sheffler.

For 50 years, WTA has helped hikers amplify their voices in support of the simple idea of the continued existence of trails. Folks who are part of our 64,000-strong Trail Action Network can weigh in whenever an issue concerning trails comes up. And every other year, we host Hiker Rally Day — a biannual event where hikers can meet with their elected leaders to share what they want to see on trail.

We just wrapped up WTA’s 2021 Hiker Rally. This year it was an all-online event where almost 100 advocates lent their voice to support the investments they want to see in our trail system. While WTA provides priorities and talking points for each Hiker Rally event, each advocate has their own motivation for their advocacy work.

Getting more involved

For Mariluz Villa, it was WTA’s monthly newsletter, Trail News.

“It was through WTA’s newsletter that I heard about trail advocacy. It resonated with me, since I already had been involved in advocacy for underrepresented groups in politics and healthcare.”

Mariluz and her husband attended Hiker Rally Day in 2017. It was at the morning’s orientation that they realized the value of their presence at the event.

“While getting info about the day, I found out we would be meeting with our legislative representatives to discuss why trail maintenance needed to be included in the state budget. That was when I realized trail advocacy was not fundamentally different than advocacy for other causes. I believe we were successful in our efforts 4 years ago! Since then we have signed petitions and seen change happen.”

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Mariluz (3rd from left), her husband, and other constituents from her district spoke up for trails in 2017, and saw results from their efforts in 2020! Photo courtesy Mariluz Villa.

Thanks to efforts of advocates like Mariluz, last year the Great American Outdoors Act was passed. This long-awaited legislation fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and provides money for federal agencies (like the National Park Service and Forest Service) to address years of backlogged maintenance.

Seeing the need on the ground

Maintenance concerns are a huge motivating factor for advocates. Seeing the deteriorating condition of trails can inspire people to go beyond the on-the-ground trail work and seek improved funding. One hiker who made that connection is Matt Thyer. He has a long history of working on the land — from the Student Conservation Association to volunteering on the Colorado Trail to working as a backcountry wilderness ranger.

“[The Colorado Trail] crew did some re-routes, but cut a lot of original track too. Needless to say, that’s when I got hooked. And then spending summers on the Flat Tops is where a lot of my passion for untrammelled lands and wilderness trails come from.”

When he moved to Washington in the late 90s for military service, Matt was trail running one day when he came upon a WTA trail crew, who told him about WTA’s mission. At home, he did some research into how he could get involved.

“I realized that WTA had an annual fundraiser called Hike-a-Thon. When I realized I could put my trail miles to good use I started signing up unwitting co-workers and friends by the mile. Now I’m not so fast, but my desire to be an advocate for wilderness and trails is still strong.”

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Matt Thyer learned to love wilderness in Colorado, and brought his desire to protect it with him when he moved to Washington. Photo courtesy Matt Thyer.

inspired to help

But you don’t have to have lived somewhere for a long time in order to be an advocate for trails there. Marie DeJournette recently relocated to Wenatchee from Hawaii, and within months of her move had joined WTA’s Hiker Rally event.

Marie has a long history of connection to the land. As a kid, she read Colin Fletcher’s "Thousand Mile Summer," about his summer hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The book sparked 45 years (and counting) of adventure, starting with her first big hike, right in her backyard in Hawaii.

“I went through the Haleakala Crater on Maui. I was supposed to go with my brother in law, but he decided not to go at the last minute, and I did the 18 miles all by myself.”

That trip was also what inspired her to protect the environment.

“The trail there goes through the cinder, and if someone hikes off trail, they really damage the environment. Seeing the social trails there bothered me from my very first hike.”

So she volunteered with a mountain biking trail crew, where she learned the basics of trail maintenance and became friends with other people who shared her values. When she moved to Washington, she sought out other trail advocates, and learned about Hiker Rally. Though she had not done advocacy for trails before, she’d seen the effectiveness of advocacy firsthand.

“I did a little bit of lobbying when I lived in the Bay Area. We were trying to prevent cancer by regulating exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment."

Marie works with the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, who, in 2017 helped pass the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act, which made California the first state to require ingredients in cleaning products be listed on the label and online.

Seeing that, and other more recent efforts pay off in passing legislation, helped encourage Marie to dive into environmental advocacy, too.

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Marie (front) and her friends goofing around on a snowshoe trip to Stevens Pass. Photo courtesy Marie DeJournette.

Long-time advocate, first-time hiker

You also don’t have to have been a lifelong hiker to be an advocate.

"As an attorney, advocacy has always been on my radar — whether for public policy, human rights matters, cannabis legislation, or something else entirely," said Maria Jouravleva. "So, advocacy has always been embedded in my interests. If I care about something, it also means that I care about the legislative efforts or political campaigns that affect that interest."

In 2016, hiking became one of those interests when her partner introduced her to it. 

“Growing up in an immigrant family, my parents were not familiar with the landscape here and didn't know how to teach us about a geography they were more or less unfamiliar with. So, they erred on the side of caution and encouraged us to pursue interests that were closer to home.”

When she met her partner, he told her about growing up “playing in the dirt” in Alaska and she decided she wanted to make memories like that for herself. She found WTA’s hiking guide and she and her partner headed to Wallace Falls for their first hike together.

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Wallace Falls State Park is packed with waterfalls, perfect for enchanting first-time hikers like Maria. Photo by adventurelover.

“Since then, we've done dozens of hikes together all across Washington. Many of those hikes have become meaningful memories or mark a pivotal point in my life, and I want to ensure that those areas remain untouched for others to have their special relationship to the outdoors.”

She understands that it takes advocacy work to ensure that.

“If I care about something, it also means I care about the legislative efforts or political campaigns that affect that interest.”

In addition to attending Hiker Rally, Maria advocates online, sharing causes and campaign efforts on social media.

“Because that is where most of my 'community' resides these days, it's been an easy way to draw someone's attention to an issue and spark a conversation.”

That consistent engagement is important. Advocacy doesn’t happen just one day a year. It’s an ongoing effort. WTA talks a lot about the need for investment in trails (it's one of our founding principles). And yes, that often means seeing increased funding for trail systems. But investment can happen on a personal level, too. It can mean dedicating a day to a work party, a month to participating in Hike-a-Thon, a few hours to Hiker Rally, or a few minutes signing a petition.

Your investment of time contributes to ensuring a future where you, and anyone else who wants to will be able to step onto a trail. If you already make those investments, thank you. If you want to get started, you can take your first step by signing up for the Trail Action Network.

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