I had the opportunity, along with three other representatives from the FMCBC (Bob St. John, Carol Hunter and Dave Wharton) to attend the Washington State Trails Conference in Bellingham this month. This biennial conference is organized by the Washington State Trails Coalition and brings together trail professionals and volunteers from across Washington State. Over 300 people participated and we helped to make it an international conference this year.
The conference was extremely well organized and included a good variety of interesting breakout sessions each day covering a wide range of topics. To get an idea of what was available you can view their conference program which shows how the topics were broken down into 5 streams: Changing Terrain, Adaptive Solutions, Transforming Communities, Active Transportation and Trail Showcase. I focused most of my time on Changing Terrain and Adaptive Solutions which covered topics such as building community relationships, working with volunteers, fundraising, trail collaboration and encouraging youth participation in trail stewardship. Each session included valuable information and ideas, too many to list here, but some of which I thought were worth sharing.
How to address funding cuts?
Washington State Parks have seen severe budget cuts similar to what we’ve been experiencing here in BC with our provincial parks. Funding has been cut from 90 million to 18 million biennially. When Carol and I were chatting with Don Hoch, Director of State Parks, he commented that approximately a third of their full-time staff have been laid off or their positions have been changed from full-time to seasonal or part-time. These are definitely difficult times for their state parks.
Washington is one of five states in the U.S. which does not collect income tax from its citizens. This means the state need to search for creative ways to bring in revenue to fund public services such as education, health care, parks and recreation etc. To combat the cuts to their parks, the Washington State Legislature and Governor created the Discover Pass which is a user pay system for the public to access their state parks. This user pay system ($10 per day or $30 per year) generates $30 million in revenue per year for their parks and provides severely needed funding. The downside of course is that a pay per use system creates a participation barrier for those who cannot afford to purchase a pass.
Other ideas for generating revenue for their parks have been suggested such as imposing a tax on recreational vehicles or even on bottled water as both are tied to outdoor recreation. Getting people on board with taxes would be a difficult road to take so it will be interesting to see what develops over the coming years as Washington struggles to fund its park system.
The value of volunteers
As many of us in BC already know, another way to help our parks keep costs low is for volunteers to help with building and maintaining trails. At the conference there were several opportunities to learn about volunteer trail building programs that have been successfully implemented in Washington. One break-out session which I attended was called Creating New Leaders: WTA and the Youth Ladder of Engagement. This session included a panel of youth who have been participating in trail building and maintenance through the Washington Trail Association’s Youth Program. Youth have the opportunity to participate in some trail work for a single day or for an entire week (they call the week long trip a ‘vacation’). As these youth gain experience and skills in trail building, their role shifts from simply working on the trails to becoming stewards of the trails and eventually leading other youth trail builders. It would be great to see a program like this develop in BC.
Another way some organizations and groups are getting involved with their trails is by building partnerships within their communities to support projects which will enhance and/or protect outdoor experiences within their regions. I attended two different presentations with two different goals and strategies.
The first presentation was by Sharon Grant, Founder of the Friends of Badger Mountain. Her group raised enough funds to purchase 600 acres of land in their region and preserve these lands for non-motorized recreation. She attributes the success of her organization to several different steps they took which helped build strong community support.
- They developed a recognizable logo for their cause which they then placed on all of their promotional materials.
- They created a repository of historical photos showcasing Badger Mountain as a beautiful region worth protecting.
- They formed a contact list of members, supporters and volunteers on whom they could call to help write letters, make donations and participate in trail work parties.
- They made presentations and established relationships with their local Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Bureau, service clubs, church groups and other community organizations.
Using all of these pieces, the Friends of Badger Mountain were able to gain strong support for their project from their community. With this support they were able to then raise the funds needed to purchase and protect the lands.
The second presentation was by Nancy E. Henderson, President of the Parks and Trails Task Force for the Town of Steilacoom. Steilacoom was a mill town, but when that mill closed down it meant that funding for their local parks was cut. Park staff were unable to keep up with the maintenance and soon many of the trails and walkways through the town became overgrown. A group of citizens decided that they would like to volunteer their time to help improve the situation. Sounds like a great idea and they assumed that the park staff would be excited to have their help, but that was not initially the case. Unfortunately, the Parks Manger in Steilacoom had had a bad experience working with volunteers in the past and was not enthusiastic about enlisting volunteer help again.
Nancy’s group had to work hard to gain the trust of the Parks Manager, but over time they did and then they were able to make great strides in improving the trails and walkways within their town. Nancy and the group worked hard to ensure that the experience was positive for the volunteers by supplying yummy refreshments, providing safety vests and hats with logos to show that their volunteers were working on the trails in an official capacity, and writing newspaper articles highlighting the contributions of their volunteers.
There are all sorts of ways for organizations to involve their community with their projects. It’s a matter of reaching out and inviting them to participate, overcoming some of the hurdles along the way and then showing appreciation for the efforts of both the volunteers and their community partners.
Outdoor recreation liability concerns
Of course Bob and I also attended the one break-out session on the Liability Exposure of Outdoor Recreation. This was the only session I attended that had standing room only so liability is obviously as much of a concern for those in Washington as it is for us here in BC.
The main topic of discussion was Washington’s Recreational Use Statute (RUS) and how it applies to private landowners. This statute protects landowners who allow members of the public to access their lands for the purposes of outdoor recreation from liability for unintentional injuries sustained by the users. All different types of outdoor recreation use qualify under this statute and the landowners are protected as long as they do not charge a fee to access their private lands. This statute is in place to encourage landowners to allow people to recreate on their lands without fear of a lawsuit being brought against them. I thought this was an interesting system and that if BC could adopt something similar it might help with our clubs gaining access to private lands held by logging companies on Vancouver Island.
Risk management was also discussed including the importance of waivers, insurance, and establishing recreational agreements between landowners and recreation users. One of the key messages from the presenters was that nothing prevents a frivolous lawsuit, but the chances of having a frivolous lawsuit brought against you can be significantly reduced by implementing these tools to manage the risk.
Another presentation that I found interesting was Right of way: Stories of Striving Toward a More Inclusive Outdoor Culture. A panel of speakers discussed how the outdoor movement is very monoculture; lacking in ethnic, gender, ability and income diversity. Unfortunately, outdoor recreation is viewed by many as privileged recreation and there is little diversity amongst outdoor recreation participants, leaders and employees. This topic is huge and the panel only had an hour to discuss, which barely gave them time to scratch the surface, but a few of the key ideas they talked about were important ones to consider. To increase diversity in outdoor recreation we need to:
- Increase equitable trail access – some people cannot even reach the trails because they have no accessible means of transportation
- Provide gear lending systems – so those who cannot afford to purchase gear can still participate
- Encourage gender and ethnic diversity when hiring
- Develop initiatives to help get urban youth outdoors
- Increase diverse representation in communication materials
- Make a better effort to highlight those stories which show diversity
For reading up on this topic the book The Adventure Gap by James Edward Mills was recommended.
Lastly they invited two excellent key note speakers: Mia Birk, Transportation planner and author of Joyride, and Robert Birkby, author of Mountain Madness and Lightly on the Land. Both gave inspirational presentations which made me want to go home, lace up my hiking boots or hop on my bike and enjoy my outdoor spaces.
Overall the conference was well worth attending and I would encourage others interested in trails to attend the next one in 2016 (location is to be determined). It was a great way to get some fresh ideas on how to take care of our parks and wilderness areas and encourage volunteerism within our local communities.
If you are interested in learning more about the conference or possibly attending in 2016 you can check out the links below. Also, don’t hesitate to send me an email and I can tell you more about it.
- Washington State Trails Coalition biennial conference info: http://washingtonstatetrailscoalition.org/conferences/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WashingtonStateTrailsCoalition
- Another trails conference coming up soon is the 2015 International Trails Symposium which will be held in Portland Oregon from May 17 – 20.