Creating Ideal Trails and Protecting Wildlife Habitats

At The Mountaineers, we like to make sure all voices in our community are heard. When we ran an article about the overpopulation of trails, it stirred up a bit of controversy and so we encouraged a rebuttal. Here it is, written by our friends over at the North Cascades Conservation Council.
Placeholder Contact Profile Ed Henderson
North Cascades Conservation Council
February 14, 2017
by Ed Henderson and Rick McGuire, NCCC

As longtime hikers and explorers who think a lot about trails in the Cascades, the article “Trails Loved to Death?” by Craig Romano in the November/December 2015 edition of Mountaineer magazine really got our attention. 

Craig is right about trails being not just crowded, but often downright mobbed. As active members of the “overzealous environmental groups” he refers to, we thought that readers of The Mountaineer might be interested in learning what we and others are doing to help fix the problem.

Our interest in trail planning began, ironically, with efforts some years ago to define and protect “core security habitats,” places undisturbed by any human intrusion, including trails. Some species of wildlife do much better in places where they are completely left alone. We quickly realized that if we wanted to preserve some trailless areas, the way to do it was to find as many good places as possible for new, minimally intrusive trails, and work to get them built. In many areas we investigated just about every peak, ridge, slope and flat spot. This helped us to form a whole-landscape perspective and see the places we thought might work for new trails.

Along with the question of “where” was the question of “what?” What kinds of trails were most needed? Plenty of trails in the Cascades go to remote places, and it is not hard to find a place for a multi-day backpack. With ever-worsening traffic, and changes in lifestyles and hiking preferences, the need now is for places that make attractive destinations for day hikes.

We asked ourselves the not very hard question of what would make an “ideal” trail? Several existing examples jumped out, including Rattlesnake Ledge and Little Si. To get the most bang for the buck, a trail should gain maybe one to two thousand feet, a level of effort that does not demand great athleticism, but enough to give some exercise and a feeling of accomplishment. More elevation gain is fine but it’s good to have an intermediate destination if a trail gains much more than two thousand feet. Every trail should offer a reward at the end, such as an interesting viewpoint. Any new trail should begin not from the end of a long, crumbling logging road, but from someplace that won’t be in danger from every passing storm.

This concept of front-to-mid country trails seemed to find support. The next steps were to propose specific trails, and work to make them happen. On the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, we can so far point to three new trail projects proposed by our groups:

Beckler Peak: This first trail we proposed is now open, climbing 2000 feet through old growth forest and meadows to expansive views of Glacier Peak and the Alpine Lakes country. An eastern extension to the lush green meadows of Alpine Baldy is planned.

Garfield Ledges: Planning and design is complete, and construction will soon be underway on this trail climbing about one thousand feet from near the Middle Fork campground to a very attractive south facing “balcony” view down the Middle Fork valley, perfectly positioned to catch the winter sun setting beyond Rattlesnake Lake far to the southwest.

Frog Mountain: Planning and design is now underway for this trail at the head of the Beckler River north of Skykomish. It will climb from the road at Jack Pass up 2300 feet to a big, broad meadowy summit, with views of Glacier Peak and much of the Wild Sky Wilderness.

Our groups can claim only a small part of the credit for these trails, but we think we have found a formula that works – find the best possible places for new trails, line up support, and do whatever you can to make them happen. Our greatest successes have been in working with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, planning many new trails and facilities on DNR managed lands in and near the Middle Fork Snoqualmie, along with lobbying Congress successfully for money to pave the Middle Fork road and to build a new National Forest campground. Perhaps a future article can look at the remarkable story of the Middle Fork valley in detail. 

Regarding those “overzealous environmental groups,” Craig may be referring to our successful efforts to minimize the destruction of old growth forest in the rebuilding of the Suiattle road, and to remove a dirt causeway and greatly improve salmon spawning at Downey Creek, a tributary of the Suiattle. The engineers wanted to punch through the road on the cheap, without regard for fish or forests. The North Cascades Conservation Council sued to make them do a better job. Yes, it took longer to do that than to just send in the bulldozers. Our intent was never to close the whole road, and had nothing to do with the Green Mountain lookout. We think it worked out pretty well.

We see ourselves as conservationists first, recreationists second, but we don’t think there is any real divide between the two among people who love the Cascades. No matter how they describe themselves, people want to recreate in beautiful natural surroundings. Many of the places for doing that have become way too crowded, and no one disputes the need for more trails. Our groups are making progress toward fixing the problem. We work the talk. The wheels always turn more slowly than one would like, but patience and persistence do pay off for those willing to do the work and stay the course. 

About the authors

Ed Henderson lives in Seattle, is past president of the Mountaineers and currently spends a lot of time reviewing road and engineering projects as a volunteer board member of the North Cascades Conservation Council (NCCC).

Rick McGuire is an overzealous environmentalist with the Alpine Lakes Protection Society and NCCC, and veteran of campaigns to protect the Boulder River, Wild Sky and (just passed in December 2014,) Pratt River additions to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, currently working on balancing conservation and recreational development in the Middle Fork Snoqualmie valley.

This article originally appeared in our Jan/Feb 2015 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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