Trails for everyone, forever
How WTA is working to clear paths to nature and welcome everyone | By Allie Tripp and Jaime Loucky
Everyone deserves to have opportunities to recreate outdoors and to have safe, welcoming and inclusive experiences on trail. If there’s one thing we learned during this unusual year — whether taking socially distanced walks through neighborhood parks or “escaping” to the mountains — it’s that trails and access to the outdoors are a must-have.
Unfortunately, outdoor spaces are not safe or accessible for everyone, nor is our state’s hiking community always as welcoming or inclusive as it should be. While Mother Nature may not see color, parks, green spaces and trails are created by people. The history and current reality of racism have created additional barriers for many people, in addition to the uneven distribution of funding, information, green spaces and other resources. That has prevented many Washingtonians from benefiting from or deepening their connections to nature.
With your help, we want to change that. That’s why we’re launching our Trails for Everyone campaign, building off of work WTA has been doing for years to make experiences on trail accessible and rewarding for everyone. Our vision of Trails for Everyone, Forever cannot be achieved without a broad, diverse and inclusive hiking community and strong partnerships that represent the full spectrum of hikers and everyone who loves the outdoors. And we know that won’t be possible without a focused and sustained effort.
We’ve been supporting the hiking community since our founding, but it’s really over the last 10 years that we have been more intentionally focused on lowering barriers to accessing the outdoors and making our community more welcoming to all.
WTA began offering shared-identity trail work parties more than 10 years ago to provide a safe space to experience trail activities alongside volunteers from similar backgrounds and communities.
This approach both expands our volunteer base and helps more people gain skills in trail stewardship and access potential opportunities in the wider outdoor industry. Volunteers who have joined us on our work parties for women or the LGBTQ+ community have said that, while they had considered volunteering in the past, it was this community opportunity that encouraged them to finally sign up.
Karen Bean, a new assistant crew leader (ACL), credits the all-women work parties in Little Mountain Park with helping her become a leader.
“These all-women parties were the first times I was able to teach people new skills and it felt really good,” she said. “It helped build my confidence and gave me a purpose for wanting to become an ACL. I really wanted to keep empowering people, especially women, and give them the sense of fulfillment that I get when I work on trails.”
Over the last 3 years, we’ve expanded these shared-identity offerings to LGBTQ+ work parties, for youth and adults, and built successful weeklong Latinx trail crew experiences in partnership with Latino Outdoors, in addition to several work parties with other community-based organizations.
We also want to ensure every work party is welcoming and safe. With that in mind, we provide leadership training to all of our crew leaders and assistant crew leaders. Our leaders learn how to foster a welcoming environment, how to recognize bias and how to step in as needed to ensure everyone feels safe and supported while volunteering their time for trails.
We want to make it easy for hikers to find the skills and information they need to get outside. We do that in a lot of ways — through our Hiking Guide and by sharing basic hiking skills in our Trail Smarts series, for instance. From the beginning, we’ve worked hard to make sure our website is full of good information — and thanks to your support, it’s all free.
We’re also doing hands-on work to help people gain new skills. Last fall, our Outdoor Leadership Training program celebrated a huge milestone. In the 5 years since the program was founded, more than 300 leaders have been trained and taken more than 10,000 people on outdoor excursions. Any one of those excursions represents a potentially transformational moment. Rae Parks, one of our partners at Young Women Empowered, said that the positive impacts of a trip she led were deeply felt by all.
“Youth reported that they had newfound strength in themselves, connected deeply with others in new and unexpected ways, and felt more closely connected with nature,” she said.
While 2020 delivered challenges, it also offered us the opportunity to rethink how we support community partners. Usually groups apply for mini-grants to help support outdoor trips they are planning, but this year large group outings were not on the table. Instead, we decided to distribute funds to five of our BIPOC-led (Black, Indigenous, people of color) partner organizations, free of any restrictions, so our partners could use the money however they needed to.
One of the partner groups to get a grant was Wilderness Inner-City Leadership Development (WILD). They work with Asian and Pacific Islander high school students in the Seattle area.
“Since we are unable to take the youth out on trips as a group, we have been working to equip them with gear and expertise so they can become leaders in their households and take trips in the outdoors,” said Andrew Stevenson-Asaki from WILD. “I think that applying the funding in that direction (was) the most direct way to honor the spirit of the mini-grant.”
Who is a hiker? What is a hike? Does it require a strenuous trek? We don’t think so. We believe that everyone who enjoys the outdoors, whether on a short stroll through a neighborhood trail or on a multi-day adventure in a remote wilderness, is a hiker. We’re excited to see that this view has become more widely accepted. A hike is less about a location and more about the experience. You are a hiker if you experience the power of nature. And, as a bonus, it’s good for the community when more people are hikers. The more people who call themselves hikers, the larger our community of potential advocates, stewards and champions can be.
Representation also matters when it comes to who is shown as a hiker. Powerful voices and social media campaigns have emerged in the last few years to better represent what a hiker looks like. We are working to amplify these efforts, which help hikers create community and find people who share their passions and struggles. Beyond creating connections, it helps hikers know we all belong in the outdoors.
We’ve also been thrilled to partner with talented writers to expand the range of stories we publish at WTA. Chelsea Murphy (@she_colorsnature) wrote about what it’s like to build a community through Instagram for Black women hiking and raising families. Recently, she also wrote about her journey toward loving her own natural hair while adventuring outside. Syren Nagakyrie, who started Disabled Hikers, wrote about how building accommodations and universal access benefits everyone in the hiking community.
All of the work we are doing to create trails for everyone can’t be done alone. Partner organizations will be key to making this vision a reality. We’re grateful for the many partners on this journey and how, together, we can all get more done.
In 2018, we wanted to do even more to support our partner organizations, so we created a new position. Krista Dooley, who has been with WTA since 2007, is now the director of our community partnerships and leadership development team at WTA.
“One of our primary roles as a partner is to amplify the great work our community partner organizations are already doing,” Krista said. “We shouldn’t reinvent the wheel if someone else is already doing great work.”
By working together, WTA and partners can all get more done.
“Working in partnership has provided resources, support and training to advance the skill set of our outdoor recreation including walking, hiking and camping,” said Trina Baker, GirlTrek’s Puget Sound volunteer coordinator. “These valuable tools have advanced the work within GirlTrek Seattle, gaining us the ability to help reach 1 million Black women and girls.”
In addition to our work with community partners, we’re teaming up with land managers to help ensure more people have easy access to green areas.
“King County Parks is fully committed to acquire and develop green space in urban neighborhoods where there are no parks or trails and the needs are the greatest. Access to nature and green space are essential to human health and we are very excited to work with a partner like WTA to fulfill our shared goals,” said Dave Kimmet, King County’s open space and natural lands program manager.
While this month is the public launch of our Trails for Everyone campaign, it is not the beginning of this work for us. We are also a long way from reaching our goals.
We are committed to advancing our vision of trails for everyone, alongside all of you in our community. As we continue our ongoing work, we’re also excited to announce a pilot program that launched this fall, our Leadership and Inclusion Crew. It’s a paid trail work crew whose goal is to prioritize leadership and technical skills development for young adults, particularly those from communities historically underrepresented in the broader conservation/outdoor recreation industry, such as BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals.
By offering paid positions that focus on leadership and technical skills development, we are able to support emerging leaders of diverse backgrounds and experiences. Our vision for this program is that, upon completion, crew members will see increased opportunities to step into leadership roles in the outdoor industry, both within and beyond WTA.
“Not only is this the first paid staff crew WTA will have ever had, it is also the first time a position at WTA has been created with a strong focus on leadership development for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks,” said Britt Lê, co-leader of the Leadership and Inclusion Crew. “As a woman of color, I feel honored to be among the staff members at the forefront of this pilot program. I mean, I’m witnessing the beginning of something that I wish had been available to me when I first started in this field. What isn’t there to be excited about?”
This work is just another step on a long journey toward building a more inclusive outdoor community. We’re committed at WTA to continuing to listen to our partners and community members as this work evolves and expands. We can all play a role in making the outdoors a safe and welcoming place for everyone. And we hope you’ll join us.