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Leading the Way

After 25 years of our trail maintenance program, WTA's trail program continues to find creative ways to care for Washington's trails.

Since our founding more than 50 years ago, WTA has been a leader in protecting Washington’s trails and public lands, finding new and innovative ways to get work done. One of our most successful innovations launched 25 years ago: the trails program.

Every year, WTA’s volunteer-powered trail maintenance program inspires people all across the state to work together to improve and create trails. Thousands of hikers step up to ensure that anyone who wants to step out on trail can do so for years to come, no matter who they are or where they live.

Teamwork makes the dream work

If you’ve ever arranged a hike with friends, you know it’s easier if you plan together. Just like planning a fun day outside, it takes teamwork to build a trail. WTA’s trail maintenance program started thanks to a few small projects in an experimental partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. Now we work with federal, state and local governments to plan and create sustainable trail networks.

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Ziplines help crews move material while minimizing impact on the environment. Photo by Scott Harder.

One of those networks is in Bellingham where, thanks to partnerships with the Whatcom Land Trust, the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition and Whatcom County Parks, volunteers this year spent 1,700 hours adding to and improving the trail network on Lookout Mountain Forest Preserve, which serves an enthusiastic hiking community.

Across Puget Sound on Orcas Island, volunteers tag-teamed on trails in Moran State Park in the spring. Six days of adult work parties kicked off the season with annual maintenance around Mountain Lake, a popular destination at the base of Mount Constitution. This summer, youth work parties returned and spent six days building new trail and preparing the base materials for a 30-foot-long puncheon bridge.

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Both youth and adult volunteer trail crews worked hard improving trails at Moran State Park this year. Photo by Britt Lê.

Farther south, a partnership with the Department of Natural Resources is helping provide more hiking options in the enormous Yacolt Burn State Forest. Home to the 31-mile-long Tarbell Loop Trail and multiple branching alternate routes, the Yacolt Burn offers hikers another location to explore as the Columbia River Gorge continues to recover from the Eagle Creek Fire.

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Volunteers worked on constructing Trail 3 in the Yacolt Burn, which, when created, will offer views and a nice six-mile loop hike near the Gorge. Photos by Brandon Tigner.

This year, we began work on Trail 3, a switchbacking, climbing route that, once it’s open, will create a 6-mile loop hike, the perfect option for someone looking for views and a short day hike near the Gorge.

Back from the brink

The trail maintenance backlog is vast in Washington and not just from fire damage. Because it can be hard to know where to start, WTA created the Lost Trails Found campaign, with three signature places. These lost trails are currently difficult to travel and in some cases impassable. WTA believes these routes would improve Washington’s trail system as a whole if their maintenance needs were addressed.

youth pasayten vol vac_austin easter (credit unclear) (2).jpgA youth crew hikes into the Pasayten Wilderness, one of WTA's Lost Trails areas. Photo courtesy Austin Easter. 

Many sections of the Boundary are so remote it can take days to reach them, so maintenance needs can go years without being addressed.

2600 hours.JPGTo remedy this, WTA tried a new project this year — a five-week Northwest Youth Corps crew. Fires prevented the crew from spending the full five weeks in the Pasayten, but the endeavor allowed a new generation of stewards to get their hands dirty and connect with each other and the landscape for days at a time.

“The amount of work a group of dedicated volunteers can get done blows me away every time,” said Rachel Wendling, WTA’s communication associate, who was on one of those BCRTs.

“During our hike in to the Boundary Trail along Andrews Creek, I maneuvered washouts, climbed over logs and waded through brush. On the way out, the trail was almost unrecognizable. Thanks to the work of our crews and the coalition, I was able to hike out unimpeded.”

Trailblazers in many ways

angry mountain.JPGAnother lost trail project is Angry Mountain, an alternate access point to the ever-popular Goat Rocks Wilderness. Angry Mountain benefited from 555 hours of volunteer attention this year, including a five-day BCRT.

Crews cleared 150 logs, re-established 4,000 feet of tread and pruned back vegetation on 8,000 feet of the trail corridor. While some work remains, once fully open, this route will offer an alternative access point to the Goat Rocks Wilderness, dispersing hikers in this heavily visited area.

Setting a goal to restore any trail is ambitious. Weather or wildfire can foil plans. Sometimes the project simply takes longer than anticipated. So planning a never-before-attempted 10-day BCRT in the height of a wildfire-heavy summer was a gamble. But it was one that paid off.

The Skyline Trail crosses the heart of Olympic National Park, and it can take hikers multiple days to reach the middle of it. Because it’s so remote, it hadn’t had maintenance in years and is listed as “at-risk” in our Lost Trails Found campaign — one step down from being truly lost.

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To address the issues facing it, crew leader Becca Wanagel took two crews to Skyline. One of those trips was the 10-day BCRT, an extremely challenging point-to-point trip.

skyline trail.JPGShe and her crew of eight hiked nearly 11,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. (That’s equivalent to climbing Mount Baker — carrying tools and gear.) They gorged on berries while logging out, brushing, building rock walls and making tread improvement. In some places, they needed to fix the trail just so they could continue on. 

All told, they spent just over 1,700 hours there. They made it all the way through, and the trail got maintenance like it hadn’t seen in years. Instrumental in their success was BCHW, who packed the crew’s gear in for 10 miles to start the trip off.

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Happy volunteers work at roughing in a trail at Fishtrap, outside of Spokane. Photo by Todd Dunfield. 

fishtrap.JPGYou don’t have to trek deep into the backcountry to find groundbreaking work from us, though. For three years, WTA has been working on a loop trail at Fishtrap, outside of Spokane.

Planned, laid out and built largely by WTA, this new trail adds another recreation opportunity near Washington’s second-largest city. WTA helped create a 7-mile trail system at Fishtrap, but we’ve also had a hand in planning and improving trails at Antoine Peak, Mica Peak, the Little Spokane River Natural Area and Liberty Lake.

All these places offer close-to-home opportunities to get outside. And with five backcountry trips on the Colville and Umatilla national forests this year, it’s safe to say WTA volunteers are instrumental in helping shape the future of trails statewide.

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Volunteers rebench the Shedroof Divide Trail in the Colville National Forest. Photo by Todd Dunfield.  

Equity and Empowerment

Anyone who wants to volunteer is welcome to be part of that future. But we know the classic work party can be intimidating for some. While we’ve offered all-womens work parties for years, this year we began offering single-identity work parties to help volunteers feel more comfortable learning a new skill.

all-womens-work-party_anna-roth.jpgLeeAnne Jensen guides a crew through a training on aligning sills on an all-women's work party. Photo by Anna Roth.

On 10 all-women or all-girls work parties and one LGTBQ+ work party, volunteers gave more than 2,500 hours of time on close-to-town favorites like the Issaquah Alps or in backcountry locations on the Olympic Peninsula, where an all-women BCRT logged out part of the Lower South Fork Skokomish Trail.

Near Mount Vernon, in Little Mountain Park, women worked on a WTA-designed realignment and completed six steps, four turnpikes and one puncheon bridge, in addition to brushing and drainage work. Pascale LeLong, an assistant crew leader and volunteer, enjoyed the time spent on these work parties.

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Lots of volunteers joined us on WTA's first-ever LGBTQ+ work party. Photo by Jen Gradisher. 

single identity.JPG“I really enjoyed the fact that it was an all-women crew...I could ask questions without feeling self-conscious about my lack of experience with tools such as drills,” she said. “I learned a ton of new skills and enjoyed the low-key atmosphere. I also enjoyed the fact that there was a broad range of ages, not just women like me in their fifties and sixties but also many women in their twenties and thirties.”

In the interest of teaching trail-building skills to anyone who is interested, WTA also started offering more trail-technique classes throughout the year, not just at our annual Crew Leader College. We offered 28 classes this year, including sessions on puncheon building, bridge building, rigging, crosscutting and rock structures.

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While WTA still works primarily with hand tools, 2018's Crew Leader College included a class on handling tools like power brushers, toters, and electric drills, which enhance our efforts at keeping trails open for everyone, forever. Photo by Arlen Bogaards. 

WTA continues to look for innovative and new ways to care for trails. But these ideas wouldn’t work without volunteer participation and member support.

It’s thanks to people like you stepping up, donating your money and time, taking initiative and learning the skills of trail maintenance that our program has enjoyed 25 years of success. It’s a heady feeling, creating new trail with friends — we hope you are as proud of what we have accomplished as we are.

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A crew ready for snacks after a day of hard work! Photo by Stasia Honnold.