Meet the Trail Community: Advocate
Thanks to Mike Denny's background in researching and exploring, he's a champion for trails, helping the next generation develop an appreciation for the natural world.
For WTA's 50th Anniversary, we're highlighting trail users across Washington state. Hear what hiking means to them, and the future of their on-trail pursuits.
Mike Denny has fostered a deep connection with the outdoors since he was young. When he was seven, he and his family moved to Africa. For the next seven years, Mike lived in Zambia and Malawi, exploring the hills and countryside near his home.
“I was outside all the time. I was an ardent butterfly collector. My friends and I would go into the forest and climb around and explore every day.”
Early interest leads to a dedicated life
In 1978 Mike let that early connection to the natural world inform his future. He went to Walla Walla College for degrees in biology and art. And since then, he’s been helping share the wonders of the natural world with the public in a variety of ways, including illustration, wildlife and plant surveys in his long career with the Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests, as well as two geology books, co-authored with Robert Carson, Professor of Geology & Environmental Studies, Emeritus at Whitman.
For Mike, teaching the value of the natural world was a core motivator for writing the books.
“Wallula Gap and the Walla Walla River drainage are vital to the survival of all life in this region. In contributing to these two wonderful books I hope to help people understand that we humans are not out here alone in this vast basin or that only we matter. I want people to understand that we are part of a larger community of life.”
Learning and sharing knowledge
When Mike moves across this landscape, he carries a deep understanding and love of the natural world. Walking at Bennington Lake, just a few minutes outside of Walla Walla, he’s quick to point out a house sparrow twittering, crickets chirping in the trees, and the wide array of trailside vegetation. He points out what’s invasive, what’s native, and how they’re interacting.
The Russian olive trees, a tree with long leaves reminiscent of eucalyptus trees are of particular interest to him.
“The Army Corps of Engineers planted Russian olive trees here years ago because they help manage the water, particularly when it floods. This area needed something to supplement the overflow canal that comes from Mill Creek.” The trees took off and now they’re crowding out native trees, so the Corps is trying to manage them. But, “… a particular bird species has become reliant on the Russian olives because they give the birds a reliable source of food. So they’ve created this symbiosis that they have to take into consideration when they decide what to do with the Russian olives.”
Educating to protect the land
The trees are part of a complex environmental story woven into the lands here, one that he would like to see more people get to know. Mike believes that learning even a little bit about the environment you’re walking through on trail will motivate people to protect them.
“Americans promote and protect what we understand and are comfortable with," he says,
"but we are less and less comfortable with the outdoors.”
He points to movies highlighting the danger of being outside that scare people away from the richness that lies outside their homes. “Hollywood tends to represent the outdoors as a scary place. People who are scared of nature won’t want to go into it or understand it.”
Healthy trails mean healthy communities
But Mike knows you don’t have to head deep into the backcountry to develop an up-close relationship with the environment. A rich diversity of flora and fauna can be just a few minutes from a city center, like at Bennington Lake.
A lifelong advocate for and educator about the environment, Mike is now on the Walla Walla Community Council, which is working to establish a long trail from the original site of the Whitman Mission to the town of Walla Walla.
“I gave the first presentation on this proposed trail and talked primarily about the health and economic benefits of having a long trail in or near your community. I referenced the Austin, Texas trail system, the San Antonio, Texas river walk and the Grand Junction, Colorado river walk. Then I came back with J. Andrew Rodriguez and we talked about the benefits of having biking, birding, and hiking opportunities close to home. The council liked it and we’re working towards making it a reality.”
Mike has also taken kids from the Walla Walla YMCA to the nearby Blue Mountains. “I see their faces when they get out there –- they’re just wowed by the outdoors. Once they experience it, they get really excited about it. So it’s important to present the outdoors to the next generation in an exciting way in order to get them to care about preserving it.”
People can take advantage of the benefits of a trail whether it's just outside of town or 2 hours away. And with the help of advocates like Mike and the generations he is inspiring, Washington can look forward to enjoying a healthy trail system for many years to come.
Further reading: Mike’s wildlife illustrations appear in A Birders Guide to Idaho (1996), many articles and papers for Oregon Birds, Idaho Wildlife and the Washington Ornithological Society (1985-2013) and the brand new Peterson Reference Guide to the Woodpeckers of North America by Steven Shunk (2016).
Get Involved: Programs like WTA’s Outdoor Leadership Training program also work to inspire love for the outdoors in future generations.