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Caring for Trails, Caring for People

Posted by Whitney Allen at Jun 29, 2020 06:55 PM |

It’s hard to imagine what WTA would look like without the McKibben family, and even harder to overstate Craig’s impact. From volunteering with our trail maintenance program, to serving as our board president, and even filling in as interim executive director.

“Being outdoors makes people better people.”

This belief is why Craig McKibben and Sarah Merner have been a transformational part of WTA’s history. It’s hard to imagine what WTA would look like without their family, and even harder to overstate Craig’s impact. From volunteering with our trail maintenance program, to serving as our board president, and even filling in as interim executive director, Craig has been a hands-on player with every team at WTA.

Both Craig and Sarah have been hiking, climbing and even doing trail maintenance nearly their entire lives. Craig’s first experience with trail work was as a Boy Scout in high school. The project was building a metal hut at Camp Schurman, a high camp on the Emmons/Winthrop route to summit Mount Rainier. A trip to Camp Schurman is an adventure in itself, even without the added task of construction. The troop hauled their materials up the 12-mile, 5,000-foot climb, roping up to stay safe on the glacial approach to camp. Over the course of a few days, they assembled the structure and headed back home, but the experience hooked Craig as a climber from that day forward.

Craig McKibben and Sarah Merner3.jpg
Sarah Merner and Craig McKibben have long been a vital part of the WTA community.

Sarah’s summer on a U.S. Forest Service crew was her first experience with trail work, hiking and fixing trails 10 days at a time with one other crew mate and an ornery mule. Sarah recalls a day when their mule, “who was usually breathing down [their] necks,” took off running down the trail instead. They had made the mistake of hitching him to a fallen log, and as he ran, the trailing log destroyed everything in its wake. By the time they caught him, thankfully unharmed, Sarah had learned the lesson to never tie a mule to a log again.

Based on their own experiences, Craig and Sarah both find the outdoors a great training ground for youth. “When you’re hiking or climbing,” Craig said, “you have to make real decisions, and those decisions have real consequences.”

Harking back to their guiding belief that being outside makes people better people, Craig and Sarah know that this journey begins when you are young.

“People who are committed to the outdoors have had experiences that made them fall in love with the outdoors to start,” Sarah said. “When people have the opportunity to geek out on what they love — plants and birds and whatever else — then they will take steps to protect it.”

Naturally, Craig and Sarah have always spent lots of time with their three children in nature.

“Our kids have always liked hiking, and I think that’s because that’s when we, their parents, are at our best and happiest,” Sarah said.

Even as their children have grown, they still find time to be on trail together. When their daughter, Fiona, worked as a crew leader with WTA, they attended several of her weeklong work parties.

Craig and Sarah know that not every kid who goes hiking will fall in love with the outdoors, but they believe every child should have the opportunity to see if nature could be their passion. This is why their family helped establish WTA’s youth program. The breadth of the program has grown since Craig and Sarah’s first gift to the program in 2006. WTA is now in the midst of building a second gear library to support Tacoma and South Sound communities, and last year our Outdoor Leadership Training program celebrated 10,000 youth experiences outdoors!

When Craig was ready to step back from hands-on work at WTA, he and Sarah wanted to help make a bigger impact, but didn’t want to wait until the end of their lives to give a bequest. Instead they had the idea to create the Impact Fund, an investment of $2 million to support high-priority needs and new projects at WTA. These funds have allowed WTA to test big ideas by investing in staff and programming to support innovative projects. In fact, it is these funds that have been the catalyst for WTA’s new campaigns, which tie together WTA’s programs, partner organizations and members to have a lasting impact for trails.

When deciding to make this type of transformational investment, Craig and Sarah were curious how it would turn out. Now, they are pleased to declare that “the experiment worked, and more people should do it!”

Craig and Sarah’s visionary investments of money, time, expertise and passion have shaped our hiking community and have made it possible for so many more people to access the outdoors. And in the process, they’ve made all of us better people.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.