50 Years of Giving a Voice to Trails
“I can recall the precise point at which I stopped being a hiker and became a conservationist. It was on a heather slope high above White Rock Lake. There was beautiful wilderness all around me: lakes, forests, mountain ridges. Suddenly I saw this huge brown blight, an obvious clearcut, way down there by the Suiattle River. I thought, ‘My God ... They will take it all if someone doesn’t stop them.’” — Harvey Manning
- Read more advice from some of the most dedicated advocates for trails.
As Washington Trails Association turns 50 this year, we’re looking back and reflecting on how we’ve grown as an organization—and as hikers. We have a lot of achievements to be proud of. We’ve brought equity to trail funding provided by our state gas tax, protected trails and the lands that surround them, and developed a new way to engage people in trail and road issues. But perhaps our greatest achievement, one that we’re bone-deep proud of, is our role in helping to turn hikers like Manning —and you—into the stewards of our trails.
It’s the principle WTA was founded on, and it’s the very essence of why we continue to come to work—the joy of seeing Washington’s hiking community (you!) evolve from simply enjoying the outdoors to standing up for its support and protection. It’s the honor of showing you how you can make a difference for trails and the fulfillment of seeing your delight when we win together, whether that’s protecting the Pratt Lake Trail from logging or regaining access to spectacular places like Green Mountain and the Suiattle River Trail.
We’ve learned a lot along the way, from how to create champions for trails to how to work with other trail users to maximize our impact. It’s been an amazing journey so far but there’s still more work—and more stewardship—to be done. We’re not intimidated. In fact, we’re committed to out-thinking, out-working and out-innovating everything that stands between us and a better future for trails. It’s become WTA’s calling card, and it’s the reason that our next 50 years are going to be even better than our first 50 years.
An army for trails
When outdoor organizations talk about the problems facing trails today, they give the impression that our favorite hiking thoroughfares were once perfectly provided for and that the issues we now face, from development to funding, are new. The reality is that trails and wild places have always been threatened and outdoors enthusiasts have always needed to demonstrate their care for these things—it’s the very reason Washington Trails Association was founded in 1966.
The 1960s were a critical time in Washington’s recreation history. Back then, hikers felt that impending threats—an increase in motorized recreation and commercial activities like logging and mining—were encroaching on their favorite trails and public lands. It could’ve been the beginning of the end. After all, there weren’t nearly enough hikers to stand up to the more powerful commercial interests. Instead, with a pioneering idea that was shared by three Washington hikers of the time, Ira Spring, Harvey Manning and Louise Marshall rallied a growing army of hikers that would come to stand up for Washington’s beloved trails. The product of that effort was an organization that would bring them together and show them how.
The idea was a simple one. Threatened areas could only be saved if they were more widely known, visited and treasured. This concept was coined by Spring as “green bonding,” but in the beginning it was a grand experiment that drove Marshall to launch a hiker newsletter called Signpost (predecessor of Washington Trails) and publish a guidebook, 100 Hikes in Western Washington. This was followed by Spring and Manning’s 100 Hikes collection. Everything they published had an important goal: to get people out on trails so they would fall in love with what they saw and then commit themselves to protecting those places.
“Is it too late for feet to save our heritage?” asked Ira Spring in his introduction to 100 Classic Hikes in Washington. “No. Not if each of you takes up paper and pen and postage stamps and joins the letter-writing militia. Go walking. Fill your feet with the feel of the land. Then ... let your fingers do the walking on pages and mail them to your supervisors of national forests, Congresspersons and Senators, and newspaper editors. All these need to know what your feet have learned. This wildland is your land, and it is your obligation to be its steward and its advocate.”
5 Easy Steps to Be a Trail Steward
- Learn about issues facing trails.
- Contact Congress about the importance of trail funding.
- Talk to hiking buddies about how they can protect trails.
- Volunteer time for trails to the best of our ability.
- Sign the pledge to speak for trails in 2016.
It wasn’t long before the young WTA, through the lens of Signpost, gave green bonding one of its first big tests. In the 1960s and 1970s, the pristine environment of the area now known as the Alpine Lakes Wilderness was threatened with encroaching development. At this point, hiking information was widely available and the legion of hikers on both sides of the Cascades had grown. But it remained to be seen: Would the new outdoors enthusiasts be compelled to speak up for protecting one of Washington’s iconic areas?
There was only one way to find out. The call for help was sounded by the Alpine Lakes Protection Society (ALPS), Sierra Club and several other conservation organizations. In this pre-Internet era, it was accomplished through notices in Signpost and newspapers, as well as by word of mouth. People were asked to show up and testify at local hearings and write impassioned letters to members of Congress calling for a wild Alpine Lakes.
Don Parks, now a trustee with ALPS, had never advocated for the outdoors before he attended his first public meeting for the wilderness effort. “Every year we were losing miles of trails,” says Parks. He understood that in order to keep those trails, he needed to take action. That first meeting was all it took—he was hooked. Parks saw that by showing up, he was able to contribute towards making a difference.
Parks wasn’t the only one to show up. Hundreds of other stewards, new and experienced, did as well. And they didn’t just attend meetings locally. Some advocates like Parks also traveled to Washington, D.C., armed with photos of stunning blue waters among craggy peaks to meet with members of Congress and testify on behalf of the unparalleled landscape.
In 1976, after dozens of meetings, debates in Congress and phone calls to thought leaders, hikers achieved something great: the highest level of protection in our country—wilderness designation—for the Alpine Lakes. Within the triumphant victory of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness was another, no less important, win: green bonding was a proven success.
From one voice to many
Green bonding was here to stay. It became a cornerstone principle of WTA, but especially the advocacy program, that anyone exposed to our outdoors can become a champion for trails—and not just hikers.
Over time, it became clear that the best way to advocate for our wild lands and trails was not only to advocate for our own interests but to join forces with other trail users—from trail runners to bird watchers to horseback riders to mountain bikers—who have fallen just as hard for the outdoors as we have. We’re not just sharing a common interest in trails. We’re building coalitions that take green bonding to a new level.
“The connections [built] between hikers and horsemen and mountain bikers have been really effective,” says Gary Paull, wilderness and trails program coordinator for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. “The more that groups have a consistent message that they can take to their elected officials, the stronger their voice is.”
Interestingly enough, it was the Alpine Lakes Wilderness that provided the proving ground for another idea—this time collaboration. The wilderness itself had been protected since 1976, but since then, the valley directly below the Alpine Lakes, and the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River, had become a dumping ground for rusty cars and trash. In 2007, outdoor champions Rep. Dave Reichert and Sen. Patty Murray asked Congress to add the valley to the wilderness area to protect low and mid-elevation forest and trails.
Congress didn’t act immediately. Advocating for the addition to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness took years of collaboration between WTA and conservation groups like ALPS, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Washington Wild and others. It also brought together local community groups like the Middle Fork Outdoor Recreation Coalition, businesses, church leaders and elected officials, in addition to recreation advocates like Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance.
In December 2014, collaboration was king. The expansion of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness was finally approved, giving 22,000 acres of much-loved land protected status. Without collaboration, the area likely would have been lost to development. Instead, this land remains in the public trust. Today, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is one of the most visited wilderness areas in the country. But that’s not the only thing we’re proud of. The effort to protect it has become a model for how nonprofits, individuals and land managers can work together on behalf of Washington’s natural treasures.
Collaboration proved to be such a success in 2014 that WTA joined 44 other groups, including The Mountaineers, REI, Washington Scuba Association, Ducks Unlimited and many other seemingly disparate groups, to form the Big Tent Outdoor Recreation Coalition, a nonprofit working to bring broader awareness of the importance of outdoor recreation to the state and establish outdoor recreation as an economic powerhouse. After all, the outdoors aren’t just fun and games to Washingtonians; they’re big business too. Outdoor recreation is responsible for $21.6 billion of our state’s economy and nearly 200,000 jobs each year.
Collaborations such as this are already paying off in dividends—and not just for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. “We had such big gains in 2015, from the higher-than anticipated level of state funding for trails and outdoor recreation to the creation of an outdoor recreation advisor in the governor’s office for the first time in our state’s history,” says Erin Dziedzic, WTA’s strategic advisor in Olympia. “Now we have to ask ourselves: How do we carry that forward without losing ground?”
Innovating for the future
“There’s been a lot of advocacy going on and that’s probably kept us where we are. But it feels like it needs to go to another level,” says Paull.
That’s because there’s still more to do. Washington is expanding. By 2040, the state will add 2 million more residents. More people means more boots on the ground and more hiking buddies, but it also means more pressure on the state’s trail resources. There are other challenges as well. This summer, with its devastating wildfires, was a sad and powerful example of how difficult it is to guarantee that trails get even the meager funding due to them. Because federal spending for national forests and parks has taken a hit in recent years, land managers are raiding their own budgets—including money earmarked for trails—for operating and emergency costs.
With more people and fewer dollars, “business as usual” won’t cut it. We must find innovative ways to build new trails, keep the ones we have accessible and make sure that people continue to have great, wild places to play in. That means new partnerships with local governments and odd bedfellows, reinforcing the economic and social values of trails and switching the mindset from “hiking as a hobby” to “hiking as a fundamental need for quality of life.”
One recent example of WTA’s work to shift this mindset is through our focus on the Teanaway Community Forest near Cle Elum, the first forest of its kind in the state. WTA has a seat on the forest’s advisory committee along with equestrians, farmers, mountain bikers and many others. Together we are walking the halls of the Capitol in Olympia to advocate for the funding to provide close-in recreation opportunities, create a new source of economy for local communities and protect the forest’s ecological values.
Only with these kinds of collaborations will we be successful, whether with securing funding for new trails or protecting more wilderness. Working together as one voice is much stronger than working alone.
Making you a part of the team
If there’s something we’ve learned from WTA’s 50 years of stewardship, it’s that great need brings out the innovation and greatness in us all. Harvey Manning wasn’t a steward until he saw a clearcut in the middle of awe-inspiring wilderness; Don Parks wasn’t a steward until the Alpine Lakes were in danger of losing more trails. It’s clear that every time a need for trails and special places has come up in our hiking history, people have risen to the occasion—and we have too as an organization.
Heading into our 50th anniversary, we can’t wait to prove ourselves again. But we need your help. It’s easy to contribute. All you need are the boots on your feet to get out there and experience the wild places that make Washington so incredible. Then, in the spirit of Spring’s and Marshall’s work from half a century ago, add your voice to speak up for trails, and share your own stories about why they deserve protection.
“All it takes to be a champion for a place is to speak up and say you care about it,” says Andrea Imler, WTA’s advocacy director. “We need everyone to join us in ensuring future generations will continue to enjoy the trails we love today.”
Together, by using our boots and voices and working together, we can have an incredible impact on Washington’s trails in the next 50 years. As Margaret Mead was fond of saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”