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How WTA Works for Trails and for You

By building connections, looking for creative solutions and mobilizing hikers, we’re helping to create a strong future for trails. | By Jessi Loerch

Washington Trails Association has always brought hikers together. Since Louise Marshall first began publishing Signpost, a regular newsletter full of information for hikers and by hikers, we’ve been a voice for trails.

Louise’s vision has grown ever since. More than 50 years later, we wear many hats — or maybe we should say we wear many shoes. One day it may be sturdy hiking boots. The next, it could be a pair of dress shoes, suitable for meeting with lawmakers in the capitol. Often it’s just comfy shoes, so we can walk and talk with people to create a shared vision of what is possible for trails in Washington.

All of the work we do is moving toward our goal of trails for everyone, forever. And to make that vision a reality, we show up in many different ways across the state and even the nation. Some of our work is visible, like building a brand-new bridge. But some of it is less visible, like leading statewide conversations about the future of outdoor recreation.

Volunteers smile at the camera at LBA park.
On-trail volunteer work is often our most visible, but there is so much more! Photo by Bob Zimmerman.

We’d like to take time to celebrate the many different ways we support trails — and the trail community that makes our work possible — and to dream big about where we can go next.

Finding solutions to tough challenges

One of the things that makes WTA effective is how we are able to look at the big picture — wonky policy in Washington, D.C., or the vast network of trails that span our state — all the way down to the tiny details — improving drainage on a single, muddy trail.

Recently, we’ve taken a huge step to drastically improve the big picture for trails. This summer, we’re excited to have our first paid trail crew working in the backcountry.

A before and after comparison of a trail after the pro crew had logged it out.
The pro crew has worked on some rough trails, clearing the way for future backcountry adventures. Photos by Zachary Toliver.

We’ve long worked to keep at-risk backcountry trails on the map with our Lost Trails Found campaign. We’ve been maintaining these trails for years, and one recurring problem is how difficult some of them are to access. They’re deep in the backcountry and have a short working season. Some of the projects simply aren’t feasible for volunteer trips. With a pro crew, however, we can give a team most of a summer to tackle some of the stickiest problems.

This year, our crew is funded thanks to the Great American Outdoors Act, which provided desperately needed money for maintenance on national public lands. After years of advocating for it, along with many partners, we were thrilled to see this support for public lands come through. The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is using some of the money to support WTA’s pro crew, which is working in the Pasayten, Glacier Peak and Lake Chelan-Sawtooth wilderness areas. On one 8-day, 40-mile loop, the crew cleared an astonishing 447 trees from the Cathedral Lake Loop in the Northern Pasayten Wilderness.

Crew leader Zachary Toliver sawing a log near Cow Creek Meadows.
Pro crew leader, Zachary Toliver, saws a log above Cow Creek Meadows in the Entiat. Photo by Zachary Toliver.

The crew is led by Zachary Toliver, who began working with WTA last year as part of our first Leadership and Inclusion Crew. We created the crew because we saw a need for professional opportunities for people from communities historically underrepresented in the outdoor community. Zach and the Leadership and Inclusion Crew worked through the winter and spring on many of these closer-in trails. Now Zach’s taking those skills to the backcountry. It is exciting to see the pro crew made up of many alumni of various WTA programs, including trail maintenance volunteers and youth ambassadors.

“It’s some of the most exciting work we’re doing this year,” said Jaime Loucky, WTA’s chief impact officer. “We’ve thought a lot about how to build a more sustainable backcountry trail system. And this is an area where a lot of pieces are coming together. It’s advocating for funding. It’s skill building. It’s job creation. It’s all helping to build a sustainable backcountry, now and in the future.”

Bringing together trail users to do more for trails

“WTA is awesome because we’re so intentional about building authentic relationships,” said Andrea Imler, WTA’s advocacy director. “That’s key to the work we do. It’s one of the biggest priorities with our advocacy program — and really across all the work we do.”

Many of our most powerful relationships go back decades — work with the U.S. Forest Service and other land managers, for instance. And some of our partnerships are much newer, like our work with the Recreate Responsibly Coalition, a group that WTA helped bring together that ultimately became a national movement.

A hiker stands at an overlook on Hurricane Ridge
When the pandemic hit in 2020, we collaborated with fellow outdoor organizations and land managers to help hikers continue to enjoy the outdoor safely. Photo by Rebecca Mcelhiney.

Early in the pandemic, many outdoor organizations were trying to figure out the best advice for how to get outside safely.

“It became clear pretty quickly that there were a lot of similar conversations happening. It made sense for us all to come together to agree on clear and consistent guidelines that everyone could use,” Andrea said.

Working along with REI, land agencies and others, WTA quickly helped bring together a coalition to guide best practices on safe outdoor recreation during a pandemic. Thanks to our years of work collaborating with people, groups and land managers on a variety of issues, we had developed the trust and experience needed to be a leader during these uncertain times.

A hiker on a rock formation in the Teanaway Community Forest
The Teanaway Community forest is known for it's unique rock formations. Photo by Rachel Emmans.

This year, we’re also thrilled to see that our long-term work in the Teanaway Community Forest is coming together with a vision for trails on the West Fork of the Teanaway. We are putting the finishing touches on a plan for an official trail system in the area.

One of the reasons the work in the Teanaway was so effective was because we helped bring together so many different groups. It’s not just about WTA being in the room where it happens; it’s giving the trail community access to those rooms as well. WTA brings together our partner organizations, such as the Back Country Horsemen of Washington and Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, to talk with land managers and the local community. Collectively, we can come up with solutions that work for different groups of trail users.WTA had long advocated for the state to buy land in the Teanaway. In 2013, the state did purchase the land, which became the Teanaway Community Forest, the state’s first community forest. WTA stepped up to lead an effort to guide the future West Fork trail system in partnership with the state Department of Natural Resources, which co-manages the land with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. We’ve been a key figure in the process ever since.

Helping hikers become advocates

One of the strongest assets WTA brings to the table is our community of advocates. We are continuously thankful for the thousands of you who speak up for trails. During this year’s legislative session, for instance, hikers came together for our online Hiker Rally to share their own stories of the power of trails. We give hikers the information and tools they need to be effective advocates.

Our Trail Action Network gives hikers an easy way to connect with their lawmakers and speak up for outdoor recreation. All of those hikers lend weight to WTA’s voice in Olympia, and it is making a difference. While funding for public lands isn’t where we’d like it to be, the overall trajectory of state funding has gone up.

Andrea says that hikers’ voices were an important part of the successes of this year’s legislative session, including increasing the funding for the Department of Natural Resources sustainable recreation and natural areas program. Together, our voices are powerful.

Sharing the mic to amplify other voices

“At WTA, we don’t want to just apply a Band-Aid to cover problems up,” said Allie Tripp, WTA’s strategic initiatives manager. “We’re working at every angle to address the symptoms of the problems we see, while also addressing the root cause of these issues. If hikers have an issue, WTA is working to address it — lack of information, lack of inspiration, lack of access — whatever the issues, we’re tackling it from several different angles.”

Sun shining at Whatcom Creek
Making connections and building strong relationships helps the outdoor community grow, and it’s a key way WTA is protecting trails and inspiring a growing number of trail champions.Photo by Maria Griggs.

A key part of our vision is trails for everyone, and we’ve been working deliberately to make the hiking community a more welcoming and inclusive place. We also know, though, that many other groups have been working on this much longer than we have. We know our role is to help support and lift up some of those organizations.

Building strong, lasting relationships has allowed us to reach and support communities we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. Some of the work we have done has included teaming up with GirlTrek and the Forest Service on research to understand barriers to getting outside. We’ve worked with Latino Outdoors to get Latina youth out for a week on trail in Mount Rainier National Park. And we collaborated with Outdoor Afro to create an introductory hiking video. We’re so grateful for these partnerships and appreciate how we’ve been able to work with our partners in a way that helps them advance their goals as well, including introducing them to land managers and providing additional financial support to help grow the reach of their programs.

This summer, we were delighted to open a second gear library in Pierce County. We had heard from our partners in South Puget Sound that a second location would help them get folks outside more easily. We’re excited for this new gear library to make it easier for more groups to introduce kids and families to the many benefits of time in nature. We’re constantly working to welcome new hikers to our community and give them the skills they need to have a fun and safe time on trail.

Moving gear at the new WTA gear library in Puyallup.
We are thrilled to expand the reach of our gear libraries into south Puget Sound. Photo by Lily Poppen.

This spring, we launched a Trail Smarts email series, which offers new hikers a 5-day boot camp on trail skills. More than 2,000 hikers have signed up to learn new skills, such as what to carry on a day hike, how to pick the right outing for their experience level and how to be a good steward of our public lands.

We’re also excited about a new feature on our website, available to folks with a My Backpack account, that offers personalized suggestions for trails. It’s a fun way to help people discover lesser-known trails and disperse use across the broader trail system.

Thank you, hiking community

We hope that you feel proud of being a part of the WTA community. Because you should. WTA is powered by hikers. Your support and passion are what makes all of this work possible. With your help, we’ll continue to inspire and innovate as we look to the future of recreation in Washington. We’ll keep working with partners and channeling the passion of hikers to improve our state’s trail system, so everyone can find a hike that’s perfect for them. Thanks for coming on the journey with us.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.