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Volunteers work together to move a rock. Photo by Jessi Loerch.

Where We’re Needed Most: How WTA Decides Where We Work

There's a lot to consider when we decide where to work on trail around the state. By Jessi Loerch

“How do you decide where to work?” 

At WTA, we get asked that question a lot. It’s an excellent question. The short answer is that we work on public lands, and we work where we can do the most good. But, behind that simple answer, there are many more questions we ask to keep us focused on the future we want to create — trails for everyone, forever. 

It all begins with our deep knowledge of Washington state trails and the hiking community. As part of our broad plan for trails, we have created three campaigns to help guide where we work: Lost Trails Found, Trails Rebooted and The Trail Next Door. Together, those three campaigns help us focus our work on trails from the city park next door to 40-mile loops deep in the backcountry.

A WTA crew leader keeps an eye on volunteers during a trip to Blanca Lake.
Volunteers discussing the next move on their project. Photo by Jessi Loerch.

As we decide where to work, our three campaigns help us keep focused on our big goals and we ask some specific questions. 

Lost Trails Found: Is this trail at risk of being lost due to lack of maintenance or because of severe weather events? Does the trail provide access to outstanding backcountry opportunities? If yes, those are trails we are more likely to prioritize. For instance, this summer, our Lost Trails Found crew worked on the Entiat, clearing hundreds of logs and protecting trails from getting lost under the fallen trees and brush. Clearing out those trails offers hikers safer, easier access to exceptional backpacking in a remote area. 

Trails Rebooted: Is the trail an iconic popular trail that needs support to stand up to the number of visitors? Is it a sustainable alternative to popular trails to help hikers better disperse across the trail system? We are more likely to work on either of those types of trails to help strengthen hiking opportunities in some of our state’s most iconic areas. In Snoquera, for instance, we’ve been working to restore trails after fires and to craft a big-picture plan for the future of the area. Snoquera is just outside Mount Rainier National Park and offers miles of trails to help disperse hikers both from the park and from other popular areas, such as the I-90 corridor. 

The Trail Next Door: Is the trail in an area that historically hasn’t had good access to green space? We aim to work in areas that will provide new access to green space for as many people as possible. In Glendale Forest in south King County, for instance, adding trails to a previously inaccessible green space will offer close-to-home nature walks to many families. And it’s a short walk from many community centers. By prioritizing work here, we are able to offer the benefits of getting outside to thousands of people who haven’t had this opportunity before. 

A volunteer digs into the trail tread with a grub hoe.
A WTA crew leader helping lead a volunteer on tread improvement. Photo by Jessi Loerch.

While our campaigns help shape many of our decisions about where we work, we also consider many other questions. Of course, there are too many factors to list them all, but here are a few of the considerations:

    • Where is the trail? Is it in an area that has few trails? Is it in an area that is easily accessible by many hikers? Does it create trails in areas where they are needed?
    • What is the climate? High-elevation trails, for instance, may only be accessible to crews in the summer. Low-elevation trails are more likely to be available for hiking and trail work year-round. 
    • Do we have funding to do the work? Some of our work in specific areas is supported in part by the land manager, such as the U.S. Forest Service. If the project is not funded, does it support our vision?
    • What have we heard from the community? What are we reading in trip reports? Which trails are hikers telling us need the most work? 
    • Is this an area where we can team up with our partners, such as the Pacific Crest Trail Association or Back Country Horsemen, to get more work done? 
    • Do we have the capacity to support the project? Do we have a crew leader who can lead the work of our volunteers?
    • Is the land manager on board? Every year we meet with land managers and find out their priorities for trails on the lands they manage. We try to match up our priorities. 
    • Does it create volunteer opportunities for new people through work parties that are more accessible (think easily accessible, close-in city parks)?
    • What will the volunteer experience be like? We want to ensure our volunteers will enjoy their time on trail, and we plan accordingly — especially for volunteer vacations or backcountry response teams, which require people to spend more time in a place. 

Answering each of these questions requires knowing the trail system, having relationships with land managers and connecting with the hiking community. That knowledge has been built up over the decades. And, because of that knowledge, we’re well-suited to lead the way as we think about trails for decades to come. 

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