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Community-Based Solutions: Darrington Local Coordinating Mountain Loop Highway Trailhead Ambassador Program

Posted by Anna Roth at Jul 25, 2022 11:00 AM |

Talking community and battling doomscrolling with the coordinator of the Mountain Loop Highway's newest trailhead ambassador program.

Earlier this year, a volunteer ambassador program launched on the Mountain Loop Highway, staffed thanks to Glacier Peak Institute (GPI), a Darrington-based nonprofit. Trailhead ambassador programs help remind hikers about the role they play on trail, and how they can make a difference on the landscape and in other hikers' days.

Two women stand at a table under a USFS branded tent on a rainy day at a trailhead. Despite the weather they are smiling.
Volunteer trailhead ambassadors are helping hikers recreate responsibly on the Mountain Loop Highway. Photo courtesy Steven Colson.

WTA has been focusing our energies on the Mountain Loop Highway as a place where we're planning for future use and inspiring hikers. On the ground, that means proactively engaging hikers about how to hike responsibly and be prepared. And as recreation continues to be a core part of a community, it's important that programs offer locals the opportunity to staff the programs, so they can be part of the change they want to see on trail.

Steven Colson, a Darrington resident is managing this year's pilot program. He went to high school in Darrington and is now at Western Washington University; this job is his first step on the path toward a career in environmental education. We wanted to check in with him to hear how the program is going.

Our conversation highlighted the value of local connections established in communities: Steven met Oak Rankin, Glacier Peak Institute's executive director, through GPI's presence at Darrington High School.

"I knew Oak through GPI and really loved their goals. I started working retail after last summer ended, and didn’t want to stick around for this year’s summer. So I reached out to him earlier this year and asked if he had anything, and he mentioned the trail ambassador volunteer coordinator opportunity. Oak's availability to me and my ability to get this job I think significantly pushed me on this path."

Three people sit at a trailhead table with pamphlets and information for hikers. They are all smiling.
Volunteers on the first days of the Mountain Loop Trailhead Ambassador Program. Photo courtesy Steven Colson.

Getting started

Originally an engineering major, Steven entered college right when the COVID-19 pandemic started. Like many undergrads, Steven wasn't totally sure of his major in the first years, and the pandemic exacerbated his uncertainty. But he found firm ground in his conversations with Oak and work with GPI.

"The decision of what you're going to do for the rest of your life is a big one, and I'm indecisive. I'm a bit of a doomscroller, but instead of being paralyzed by that, I want to do something about it. I think I can raise awareness of environmental issues with an environmental studies degree."

The timing was perfect, too. The National Forest Foundation had a donation that was requested to go to an ambassador program, and with more people than ever heading out hiking, we knew that the Mountain Loop Highway could benefit from an ambassador program.

A red-headed woman sits at a table at the Lake 22 trailhead with paperwork and pamphlets about how to hike responsibly.
Programs like trailhead ambassadors help people support the public lands they love. Photo courtesy Steven Colson.

It just needed to be staffed. WTA approached GPI and asked if they would be able to manage the program for a pilot year, and Oak graciously said yes. Not long after that, Steven approached Oak about any opportunities GPI might have for someone looking for an alternative to retail work. 

Increasing their impact

Originally slated to be at Barlow Pass all summer, it took just one weekend tabling there for Steven to realize that many of the people there were highly experienced hikers and climbers. 

"The people I saw at Barlow were really savvy hikers who care for the environment and supported our goal. They're really behind the program and I got a lot of thank you's for being out there."

But given that we hoped to reach newer hikers, Steven decided it made more sense to be stationed elsewhere — so he proposed moving the ambassadors to the Lake 22 trailhead. Over the last couple of weekends, he's noticed that hikers at Lake 22 are more focused on getting up the trail, but that ambassadors are still able to teach folks a bit about hiking. The conversation is more about which pass you need to park, but any amount of information ambassadors can give is helpful.

Three hikers look at a table of infromation about recreating responsibly while two trailhead ambassadors talk to them.
Explaining to some hikers what to expect during their day on trail. Photo courtesy Steven Colson

For someone dipping their toe into the environmental field, this program is a great fit. Steven is getting experience in project management, volunteer management and facilitating trainings on communication points. Through the volunteers he manages, he's helping amplify the importance of responsible recreation and how hikers impact their environment. He says the program is a good balance of guidance and autonomy:

"I feel like it's something I can own and make my own. The autonomy is great; I have a few ideas and my volunteers have ideas they share with me, too. I get guidance when I need it but I'm also given room to make decisions on my own."