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The Pacific Northwest Trail travels through some of the most wild parts of Washington, including the entire Pasayten Wilderness. Photo by Benjamin Luedke.

Pacific Northwest Trail and the Recreation Economy

Forty years ago, the Pacific Northwest Trail was created. Today, the trail helps support dozens of gateway communities, and brings together hikers from across the country. A section of this historic trail is at risk of becoming lost, threatening the local economies that it supports | by Rachel Wendling

In 2017, the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) celebrated its 40th anniversary. This historic trail traverses the entirety of our state, connecting rural communities and supporting small-town economies. A critical 80-mile stretch of the PNT, known as the Boundary Trail, travels across Okanogan County.

Over the past decade, the Boundary Trail has been hit hard by catastrophic wildfires and a lack of trail funding, limiting hiker accessibility across its entirety. Without the help of the Boundary as a major economic driver, the livelihood of nearby communities may be at stake.

The Pasayten Wilderness puts on a show of colors during the fall season and is home to an 80-mile stretch of the PNT which is open to stock animals. Photo by Perry.

The Making of a Trail

From the snow-drenched peaks of Glacier National Park to the foggy shores of the Olympic Coast, the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail is one of the country’s 11 National Scenic Trails and a bucket list item for many Pacific Northwest hikers. The PNT encompasses some of the west’s most idyllic landscapes, traversing a total of 3 states, 7 national forests, 3 national parks, and 6 wildernesses. Since opening in 1977, the trail has grown to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, whether they be 1200-milers, day hikers or weekend warriors.

After the Congressional designation of the first two National Scenic Trails (the Appalachian and Pacific Crest), avid backpacker and east-coast resident Ron Strickland dreamt up a trail to connect the peaks of the Continental Divide to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Strickland worked for years, mapping out routes, recruiting volunteers, and founding the Pacific Northwest Trails Association (PNTA). By the late 1970s, Strickland had high hopes to secure the national funding and recognition the trail deserved.

In 1980, the National Park and Forest Service completed a feasibility study on the completion and designation of the trail, assuring “There is no question that a Pacific Northwest Trail stretching more than 1,000 miles in length and crossing majestic mountain ranges, major river valleys, a large island, the Puget Sound estuary, a rain forest, and ocean beaches qualifies scenically and recreationally for designation as a National Scenic Trail.”

"Crossing majestic mountain ranges, major river valleys, a large island, the Puget Sound estuary, a rain forest, and ocean beaches" 

Unfortunately for Strickland, the USFS and NPS chose to pass on future action due to the high cost of land acquisition and labor needed to complete the route. Without federal support, it was up to the generosity of volunteers and donors to build and maintain the remaining miles of the PNT.

After decades of tireless advocacy by the PNTA and other environmental organizations, Washington Senator Maria Cantwell and Representative Norm Dicks decided to introduce new legislation which would formally designate the PNT as a National Scenic Trail. In 2009, under President Obama, the trail was finally recognized.

In response to the successful legislation, Murray rejoiced: “I am proud to work on behalf of Washingtonians to make sure the Pacific Northwest Trail is protected and maintained so hikers and the communities can enjoy its pristine beauty for generations to come.”

Now, almost a decade after its official designation, the PNT has widespread support from hikers, communities and legislators.

Hikers fording a deep river crossing on the Boundary section of the PNT. Photo by loowit.

Hikers Helping Communities

It should be no surprise that hikers are helping economies throughout the country. According to the latest study by the Outdoor Industry Association, the outdoor recreation economy generates 7.6 million jobs and $887 billion in consumer spending annually. Equating to more spending than pharmaceuticals and motor vehicles combined, and generates more direct jobs than computer technology.

In Washington state alone, 54 percent of residents hike, and 72 percent participate in outdoor recreation on trails. This outdoor recreation supports 201,000 direct jobs, generates $26.2 billion in annual spending, and $2.3 billion in state and local tax revenue.

The Pacific Northwest Trail provides recreation opportunities to millions of Americans, with over 4,867,000 residents living within 100 miles of the trail. During its 1,200-mile stretch, the PNT passes through a total of 18 trail towns, bringing thru-hikers right down the main street of several rural communities. Along with these towns, the trail connects dozens more nearby areas through day hikes and weekend backpack opportunities.

These rural towns take part in a symbiotic relationship with PNT trail users, providing a place for hikers to rest, relax and resupply while supporting the local economy. They grab a coffee, pick up supplies from the post office, and bring fresh faces, and new stories to a small town.  

"The PNT improves quality of life for local people, strengthening local trail systems and making it easier to stay healthy and connect to the outdoors" —Pacific Northwest Trail Association

The PNT has been widely supported by mayors in towns along the trail, citing a positive economic impact on their communities. An excerpt from the  Congressional Record stated that after scenic recognition, “The trail will receive more eligibility for grants funding and increased attention, which in turn will result in increased use and more economic activity in rural areas.”

In addition to increased sales, tax dollars and tourism, robust trail networks have additional benefits on the housing market, too.

According to the PNTA, “People want to live near trails. Studies find that proximity to trails has a positive impact on home saleability and increases property value by 1% to 6.5%—as much as 20% for adjacent properties.”

In rural communities, trails offer more than just a recreational opportunity, but a way of life.

Smoke plumes fill the air after a summer fire ignited in the Pasayten Wilderness. Photo by pseudotsuga.

Saving the Missing Link

One of the wildest and roughest stretches of the PNT lies in the heart of the Pasayten Wilderness of Okanogan County. The 80-mile-long Boundary Trail is located in Washington’s North Cascades, connecting the Okanogan Highlands to the North Cascades peaks, and the PNT to the Pacific Crest Trail.

As one of the largest wilderness areas in Washington, the Pasayten is home to the most robust populations of lynx in the lower 48 states and one of the few places where you can find the arctic tundra outside of Alaska. The wilderness contains almost 150 peaks higher than 7,500 feet in elevation and 160 or more bodies of water. Hikers have described the Boundary Trail's rolling tundra and glacier-carved peaks as surreal, incredible and akin to a fairy tale.

The Boundary Trail stretches across the majority of Okanogan County, offering endless outdoor opportunities to the nearby communities of Oroville and the Methow Valley. Every year, the PNT draws in thousands of visitors to neighboring areas, supporting jobs and boosting the economy for more than 40,000 Okanogan residents.

[We] have a strong desire for new and improved recreational facilities that support the lifestyle and economic sustainability of residents —Okanogan County

The county recognizes the aid the PNT brings to its communities, and has even described the trail as the county's top recreation priority.

Help Keep Trails on the Map

In the 2012 Okanogan County Outdoor Recreation Plan, the county recognized that people visit the region specifically to experience recreation opportunities unique to the area, stating, "the citizens of Okanogan County and those that visit the region place a very high value on outdoor recreation, and have a strong desire for new and/or improved recreational facilities that support the lifestyle and economic sustainability of local residents."

The Methow Valley in particular sees major economic benefits provided by outdoor recreation. The Methow Headwaters found that "Nearly one million visitors per year come to the Methow to enjoy the sun, snow, and rural environment and contribute more than $150 million to Okanogan County’s economy."

With the deterioration of Okanogan's most expansive trail, tourism and visitation to these communities have the potential for a sharp downturn. The livelihood of thousands of residents depends on the outdoor recreation economy.

While an iconic trail such as the Boundary Trail should be in prime condition, due to decreases in trail maintenance funding and increased occurrences of catastrophic wildfires, some segments of the Boundary Trail have become difficult or nearly impossible to negotiate by hikers and other trail users, such as equestrians. In some places, 200 or more trees are jumbled up like the game Pick-Up-Sticks. Trail tread has eroded and brush hides the trail from view. Between fires, blowdowns and overgrowth, the trail has become increasingly difficult for hikers to access and is attracting fewer visitors to its surrounding towns.

Through WTA's Lost Trails Found campaign, we are committed to saving access to the Boundary Trail, and the economic benefits it brings to nearby communities. Evidence of previous burns can be seen across the Pasayten, increasing the risk of fallen trees. Photo by Birdman.