Meeting The Need: Investments on the Mountain Loop Highway
With more people discovering a love for trails, it's important to ensure the trail system can manage the increased needs. Here's how WTA is working on that goal in one part of Washington.
As you probably noticed, trails saw more traffic than ever last year. Thousands discovered a new appreciation for hiking (or rekindled a latent love of it) as we sought exercise and a mental break from the stresses of a pandemic. This uptick in time spent outside highlighted a need we have known of for years: that of more investment, in both trails and the infrastructure that supports them.
Several areas across the state felt this stress especially, including the Mountain Loop Highway. With its gorgeous scenery, variety of trails and proximity to the growing population of Snohomish County, the already-apparent need for investment was even more evident during last year's exodus to nature.
Identifying the needs in Popular areas
Thanks to trip reports and talks with land managers, WTA recognized the increasing popularity of this area. So two years ago, we designated it as a focus area for our Trails Rebooted campaign, which is working towards creating sustainable trail systems and focusing on hiker education.
On the Mountain Loop, we're working with the Forest Service and the Department of Natural Resources on a new approach to managing trails while meeting the needs of the people who visit.
But to do that well, we need to understand what people want when they head outside, and how their needs intersect with protecting and sustaining natural spaces. So late last year, WTA hosted a survey for hikers and other recreationists who live and play on trails along the highway. We wanted to know not just what was important to them, but what concerns they had about the area.
We're still parsing out survey data, but some major themes rose to the top: better parking options, cleaner trails and more toilets. Further detail about the themes will be available in the full report later this year, which will inform various agencies approach to managing this area in the future.
What's on the table in 2021
Of course, while the survey results will help inform future management decisions, the Forest Service and DNR also needed to plan for the more immediate future — like what was going to happen in 2021.
Planning for trail projects usually starts a lot earlier than many people realize — WTA talks to agency partners about trail projects two and sometimes three years in advance. In 2020, despite the pandemic, the gears were already turning for this year's projects. Not to mention, the Forest Service received a windfall in the form of the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA).
This historic Act provides millions in funding for Forest Service lands, and years of advocacy from hiking groups helped make it possible. If you've ever signed a letter of support for federal funding, pat yourself on the back right now — your voice helped fuel the projects that are happening on the loop this year!
In 2021, act will fund projects that restore access to popular places, like replacing the bridge that provides access to the Big Four Ice Caves. And the Forest Service is also looking at possibilities at Camp Silverton.
Formerly a U.S. Forest Service ranger station and plant nursery, then later a camp for schoolchildren, this large open area has sat empty for years. It was closed in the early 2000s, and many of the remaining buildings were demolished in 2019, but now, the Forest Service is exploring opportunities to incorporate the site into the overnight accommodations system that currently exists within the Verlot Corridor.
Improving trail systems statewide
Planning efforts for areas like this are underway in other parts of the state, too. In the Teanaway Community Forest, we're helping lay out a trail system that can keep up with the growing number of hikers. We're also exploring new ways to secure long-term funding on the Mountain Loop and in Snoquera, another focus area of our Trails Rebooted campaign.
Want to support our planning and education work in these areas? As a nonprofit, WTA relies on members to help make our work happen. You can make a donation today. We'll have more news about coming developments on the Mountain Loop this year. Stay tuned.