A sizeable group of recreation enthusiasts converged on the historic Milwaukee Road Depot in South Cle Elum on Wednesday to celebrate the unveiling of a proposed rail trail that when realized will stretch from the Washington coast to Washington D.C.

The Great American Rail Trail is a proposed 3,700-mile route that would stretch through 12 states. A 12-month route assessment conducted by the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy identified 1,900 miles of existing trail on the route, with 1,700 miles of sections that need development to fit into the network. The Washington segment plans to use the existing Cascades to Palouse State Park Trail, formerly known as the John Wayne Pioneer Trail and Iron Horse State Park. In Kittitas County, the trail begins in Hyak at the Snoqualmie Tunnel, winding through Easton, Thorp and Kittitas on its way to the Columbia River.

Multiple organizations were at Wednesday’s event, including the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, Washington Trails Association and the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders Association. All the groups in attendance signify a coalition that will work with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to advocate for the continued development of the trail through Washington State.

RTC Senior Policy Strategist Marianne Fowler came from Washington D.C. to celebrate the unveiling. She said the conservancy was formed 33 years ago by a committed group of cyclists, walkers and trail users interested in utilizing the vast amounts of abandoned railroads throughout the country in the wake of the federal deregulation of the rail industry. Prior to that, she said nobody had perfected a way of converting the abandoned tracks to trails for recreational use.

“We had to develop a way of doing that,” she said. “That included both providing technical knowledge to people, advocacy knowledge to people, but also how to organize extended collaborative efforts. We needed to involve every partner and every person that were touched by the trails.”

Fowler said partnerships vary from community to community depending on the needs of that specific area. For example, she said some portions of trail are more heavily used by bicycles, whereas others have higher numbers of naturalists.

“We find that the broader the coalition, the greater chances of success we have,” she said. “The coalitions always need to include public agencies and need to include user groups, and they certainly need to include advocates.”

Fowler said Washington state is one of three states in the network that has much of the trail already in use. Despite the established network, she said there is considerable work to be done, especially on the eastern portions of the trail. Examples of work that needs to be done includes regrading sections of existing trail, rehabilitating infrastructure such as the Renslow Trestle and Beverly Bridge within Kittitas County, and working with private landowners to provide trail easements.

“This trail has issues as well,” she said. “It has needs, and that’s why we got involved in campaigning to get funding for the Beverly Bridge, the Tekoa Trestle, the Rosalia to Malden section. There’s more that needs to be done.”

The RTC has approximately 3,400 members in Washington state. Fowler said those members work with the involved groups in the coalition to advocate on the state level for funds to make the completed trail through the state a reality.

“It was a huge synergistic collaborative effort,” she said. “Every single group, every single person has been of absolute key importance, and will continue to be so.”

STATE PARKS INVOLVEMENT

Washington State Parks Director Don Hoch said a state comprehensive outdoor recreation plan showed that hiking is the No. 1 outdoor activity. He said trails like this network lend the perfect opportunity not only to hikers but other recreationalists such as bicycle riders and equestrians.

“Going through the massive amount of mileage through urban areas and rural areas creates that sense of place and economic development,” he said. “It provides a healthy benefit for folks.”

Hoch said one of the benefits of the trail in Kittitas County is the high level of accessibility to users. On a larger scale, he said trails like this connect through state parks outside of Washington.

“Having a seamless (network) across the county is not only going to bring benefits to Washington but everybody across the country,” he said.

Hoch said state parks like the Palouse to Cascades Trail are linear parks that can include connections to city and county parks as well as federal lands along the route.

“It’s not fully controlled or under the ownership of state parks across the country,” he said. “There’s been various landowners involved in this. It is a unique challenge to get it across.”

One of the most recent developments in the trail network is the allocation of approximately $5 million to rehabilitate the Beverly Railroad Bridge that connects the trail from Kittitas County to Grant County. Although there is a detour around the bridge on the trail like the detour being used for the Renslow Trestle, Hoch said the rehabilitation of both will create a more seamless connection for users. He said the Renslow Trestle project has already been funded and work will begin soon.

“That will bring a great number of new hikers and also bikers to the trail,” he said. “We’re kind of on a momentum now of moving forward. The commission has really made trails a priority, and we’re getting a lot of support from folks around the state.”

To maintain the forward momentum, Hoch said it is imperative to have coalition members working on issues such as landowner easements and funding issues.

“It’s the local support,” he said. “The communities talking with their legislators and getting them on board with how this benefits them, not only personally but as a community.”

Once communities are connected to a large trail network, Hoch said the economic benefits are tremendous. He said users on the trail seek out places to eat and stay, as well as the social aspect of exploring towns they may have never visited before. The health benefits to the communities along the trail are also important to Hoch, as he sees more doctors emphasizing outdoor recreation to their patients. These elements, along with the sense of stewardship trails users gain from using the network create a winning combination in his eyes.

“Having this trail, with the tunnels and the trestles and the bridges, the views, we’re very pleased,” he said.

LOCAL USERS

Jason Ridlon, a Thorp resident and member of the Back Country Horsemen of Washington has been using portions of the trail since 2005. When his children were younger and in school, he said it was an easy trail for them to ride. Although he finds himself mainly on backcountry trails throughout the summer, he finds the Palouse to Cascades Trail convenient for wildlife viewing and scenic vistas during the winter.

“In the offseason, I ride this trail quite a bit,” he said. “I’ve used my stock to go to family reunions in Easton, left Thorp early in the morning and made the trek all the way to Easton. Spent the night with the stock and rode all the way back the following day.”

Ridlon sees small towns like Thorp being connected by larger trail systems like Palouse to Cascades having the potential to benefit other tourism draws like the fly-fishing industry and others.

“I think it brings the people to your town to see the agriculture, the Thorp Mill,” he said. “There’s destinations all along the route.”

Although he spends most of his time in the backcountry, Ridlon said having a diverse collection of various interest groups and advocates is necessary to keep trails of all sorts sustainable.

“I’d question the ability to keep any trails open if it wasn’t for coalitions,” he said. “It takes a community to keep a trail open anymore. Government agencies don’t have the funds to keep the wilderness open, so it takes several organizations to keep trails open.”

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