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Using Trails to See the Bigger Picture

Posted by Rachel Wendling at Jun 08, 2022 01:21 PM |

Bri Ross, a member of WTA's Emerging Leaders Program, has long been interested in using recreation ecology to understand the natural world.

By Bri Ross

My work with Washington Trails Association as a cohort member of the Emerging Leaders Program began in a somewhat unexpected place — on a paddleboard. Nine years ago, when I started paddleboarding, I wanted to know how I could lessen my impact on the natural world, but there weren’t any regulations or rules. The closest resources I had to go off of were impact studies on canoeing and kayaking from the 1970s to the 1990s. They didn’t really give me the answers I was looking for, but they did bring up bigger questions.

Ultimately, I found a framework for beginning to understand how our love of the outdoors inevitably impacts the environment. Recreation ecology is a relatively new branch of resource management that researches the environmental consequences of nature-based tourism. 

Bri on trail
Bri Ross, part of WTA’s Emerging Leaders 2022 cohort, is interested in using recreation ecology to understand the natural world. Photo by Zachary Toliver.

Later, when I began my studies at Western Washington University (WWU), I registered as an environmental policy major. But my professors helped me realize that that wasn’t a broad enough focus. I had been focusing on ecosystem services (the tangible and intangible benefits we get from the outdoors, such as harvesting natural resources or going on a hike), but I couldn’t separate policy from science, science from studies or people from all the other factors. I wanted the bigger picture. This overlapping interest in environmental science, studies and policy led me to complete my bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies. I learned how to tackle resource management issues by combining science, history and sociology and by looking to the future for sustainable, innovative ideas. 

After I closed in on my concentration, “Inclusivity in Environmentalism and Recreation Ecology,” my time at WWU flew by. Everything I learned about ecosystem services has allowed me to view WTA practices from this well-rounded perspective. 

As a participant in the 2022 Emerging Leaders cohort, I learned from crew leaders about their decision process when planning for trail work. For example, we learned about decommissioning “social trails,” which are unofficial trails created by humans trampling the vegetation to make a shortcut or gathering space. And at the same time, I learned about reinforcing established trails to accommodate horses, large groups and higher traffic. 

During my time working at Washington Trails Association, I learned the ins and outs of what goes into making a trail passable and long-lasting. I have also witnessed several overlaps in my experience in recreation ecology and in the way trail leaders address trail maintenance issues. 

In ecology, we are focused on restoring and conserving an area. While in the cohort, we spent our time removing vegetation to establish or widen trails, fixing drainage issues and rebuilding viewpoints. In my restoration work, we removed invasive species, planted native species and designed interpretive signage for visitors. In trail maintenance and recreation ecology, the task of improving user experience is the goal of resource management.

Crew leaders at WTA have dedicated their time and energy to learning about trail maintenance. They have read the books and learned from folks with more experience to decide on the best course of action to make a trail usable for as long as possible. Their planning has to address who utilizes the trails, how the users access them and how busy a trail typically gets. 

This expertise in building, fixing, maintaining and retiring trails is just one type of resource management. The resource in question? Trails. They’re the simplest and most accessible form of ecosystem-based tourism. 

The immense amount of foresight and planning that goes into maintaining recreational access drew me to this niche branch of environmental science. And my time at WTA has given me the opportunity to look at recreation ecology from different perspectives, from the close-in view of a trail to the wider view of a statewide trail system and a massive — and growing — population of people who want and need to get outside.

As I wrap up my time at WTA, I’m getting ready for the next phase. Ultimately, I plan to go to grad school, but in the meantime, I will continue my scientific research and work with community-based nonprofits. I can only see as far as the next bend in the trail, but if my time at WTA has taught me anything, it’s to appreciate the trail ahead.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.