Washington state is well known for a wide range of recreational opportunities. From the dry desert in its eastern corners to dense rain forests of the far west, Washington is home to thousands of miles of hiking, biking, skiing, climbing, and water trail systems. On any given weekend, crowds of outdoor enthusiasts take to the hills, eager for a day or two spent enjoying the scenery and atmosphere for which Washington is famous.
But all this activity comes with a hefty price paid by the most popular hiking trails, especially those along busy I-90 and I-5 freeway corridors within 100 miles of Seattle. Here, land managers and trail crews struggle to keep up with an ever-growing demographic of weekend warriors, families, and hiking groups, and it is this suburban reach that inspired a longtime advocacy organization toward a more concentrated effort to protect and preserve valuable trail systems.
In 1993, Washington Trails Association, based in Seattle, launched an innovative trail maintenance volunteer program aimed at supporting efforts of land management agencies around the state. Founded in 1966 through its ?Signpost? news and trip reports, WTA felt strongly the tug of advocacy and stewardship. During its first year, the trail maintenance committee and a handful of volunteers completed basic projects under the watchful eye of the U.S. Forest Service, and quickly gained a reputation for efficiency and quality workmanship. Over the next several years, as the program matured, WTA?s trail maintenance crews grubbed, brushed, and cut their way along thousands of miles, earning accolades from land managers across the country.Originally considered a primarily adult organization, WTA quickly realized the value of teaching youth to contribute toward trail maintenance projects, citing access to the outdoors, teamwork, and physical activity as markers for success. Thus, WTA began actively inviting kids and parents to participate, and developed a thriving Youth Program, welcoming kids age 10 and up to become stewards for wild areas that surround their homes and communities.
Krista Dooley is Youth Programs Manager at WTA, and coordinates hundreds of volunteer opportunities for kids, their parents, and other organizations. ?With so many schools recognizing the benefit of hands-on learning within curriculum, we are busy with service hours and group trips,? she says.
Families often attend one maintenance work party together, then send older kids on a WTA-sponsored trip just for teens, whereby kids learn far more than how to trim branches or build a staircase. Teamwork, math, science, dendrology, soils, and geology are all organically built into a WTA adventure, leading to valuable life experience that looks great on a resume or college application.Kids also gain valuable skills through multi-day volunteer vacation trips that take leaders, youth, supplies, and tools into Washington?s backcountry for a week of trail maintenance or construction. Camping out, sharing cooking and cleaning duties, and accomplishing a goal highlights WTA?s mission to preserve and promote the state?s trail systems in a very practical way for these future stewards. In fact, Dooley says, the kids do such a good job at their tasks that land managers often have trouble distinguishing between youth work and that of their adult counterparts.
Those young people who don?t normally engage in such hearty outdoor activities shouldn?t worry about gear for the trips, either. WTA has an established loan library for everything from boots to rain pants and gloves, just one more way the organization strives to reduce barriers that may prevent kids from engaging in the outdoors.
Younger kids have their place within the spectrum of WTA?s trail maintenance program too, Dooley emphasizes. Through an innovative online newsletter distributed every other month, parents of kids aged five through nine can browse book lists, find games and activities, and search a list of family-friendly maintenance work parties suitable for this age group. ?We have nearly 10,000 families signed up to receive the newsletter, Dooley says. ?It?s a chance for some forward momentum toward being an active part of Washington Trails Association.?
The bottom line? Community and opportunity are what make WTA tick, supporting the concept that kids who work to protect and maintain trails today are more likely to do the same as adults. Getting outdoors, supporting each other, and learning skills. It?s a formula for success at WTA, and it just keeps getting better.Washington Trails Association Trail Maintenance Program
Information: www.wta.org, (206) 625-1367.
Newsletter: ?Trail News? is a regular newsletter featuring stories, trip reports, trail maintenance updates, and all events. It?s free and can be accessed via email registration at wta.org.
Trips: WTA maintenance opportunities run the gamut – from parks to remote backcountry trails, all across the state. Youth can participate in volunteer vacations (high-school only); one-day work parties with their community or family; kid-specific work parties, just for them; specific group opportunities for schools, clubs, or other organizations; or be part of the Youth Ambassador program, taking the message of stewardship beyond the hiking trails and into area schools.
Age: Kids 10 and up are welcome to participate in WTA-led programs, but those under 14 must have a parent or guardian present at all times.
Physical requirements: WTA strives to support all volunteers who wish to give back to hiking trails. Contact the Seattle office for specific information.
Gear:?Volunteers should dress appropriately in long pants, hiking boots, and long-sleeved shirts (at least for the first part of the day), and rain gear where appropriate. Leaders provide tools, gloves, and hard hats. After five work parties, volunteers receive their own personalized hard hat, a rite of passage for many young people.
Erin Kirkland is editor of Outdoor Families Magazine and author of Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children. She grew up in Seattle, and is a founding member of the original Washington Trails Association Trail Maintenance Committee, volunteering as a Chief Crew Leader between 1994-1999.