Several years ago the Yakima River Canyon south of Ellensburg for many was Central Washington's best-kept recreation secret.

It provided great trout fishing, an eye-opening scenic drive from Ellensburg to Selah and cool waters for recreation in hot summers.

Today it has more than 160,000 visitors a year, and the numbers are rising. Far from being a secret, it's in danger of being loved to death.

Enter the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway Initiative and its partnership of members committed to improving the canyon in a way that preserves its features and access to the public for generations to come.

"Nearly everyone I've talked to locally has some story about the canyon and how they discovered its tremendous beauty or what they like the most about it or something they discovered about it," said Jim Huckabay, of Ellensburg, an outdoors enthusiast, columnist and writer. "For many it's the centerpiece for outdoor recreation in Kittitas County."

The canyon and the state highway winding through it was early on recognized for its soaring basalt cliffs, sparkling water and close-at-hand wildlife: it was the first highway to be declared an official, state scenic byway in 1968.

Two nonprofit groups - the Cascade Land Conservancy and the Kittitas Environmental Education Network - recently learned an old plan to improve the canyon byway needed to be greatly updated before state and federal governments would consider granting funds for new projects.

Updating the plan will cost money, money most government agencies can't supply alone.

The scenic byway partnership of public and private agencies banded together in fall 2010 to raise the needed funds and start the planning process as soon as possible.

More to do

The 1968 plan called for improvement of recreational access to the canyon and road safety.

Over the years some aspects of the plan have been addressed, including cleanup, more public recreation sites, roadway paving and traffic safety.

Yet continued growth in use of the canyon is requiring completion of all aspects of the old plan along with addressing new challenges.

These include reducing trespassing on private land in the canyon, widening state Route 821 or its shoulders to make it safer, adding a bicycle lane and developing clearer signs to direct visitors to sightseeing areas.

Other possibilities involve linking existing trails or creating new ones connected to better-developed roadside pullover areas.

It's widely recognized that many people pull off the highway at unsafe areas to fly fish, sight-see or watch wildlife.

Other goals are to protect sensitive wildlife or plant areas from being damaged by the public, and to widen the public's understanding of the unique ecosystems in the canyon through signs and interpretive trails or displays.

"All this will help enlighten the public about the unique natural aspects of the canyon, help the surrounding communities and support tourism," said Jill Arango, Kittitas County conservation director for the Cascade Land Conservancy, and a managing director for the private group.

The partnership members, who meet quarterly to address major planning issues, have a smaller working committee focusing only on updating the plan.

Partnership members currently are: Cascade Land Conservancy, Kittitas Environmental Education Network, state Department of Transportation, Kittitas County, state Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Kittitas County Field and Stream Club, Canyon River Ranch, Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce, the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau, the Kittitas County Conservation District, Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, Central Washington University, city of Ellensburg, Yakima Greenway Foundation, the Eaton family, city of Selah, Red's Fly Shop, Washington Water Trust, state Department of Parks and Recreation and the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy.

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