What comes to mind when you hear “Washington State Trails Conference”? A room full of older, white guys in park ranger uniforms, geeking out over backcountry maps? That's what I thought too. But I was wrong.
More than 300 people turned out to the (biennial) Washington State Trails Conference (WSTC) in Bellingham recently. They weren't all old, white men, but a diverse group of Washingtonians — representing a range of backgrounds, ethnicities, and trail/outdoor specialities.
Even more surprising than the faces of the WSTC? The news that the word "trail" no longer refers exclusively to mountainous, forested paths through the wilderness. Trails are increasingly viewed as legitimate pieces of urban transportation systems, groomed and maintained to serve walkers and bikers alike.
But these were just a couple things I learned at the conference. Below is a list of my three main WSTC takeaways, explained.
1. Trails are for cities too.
Traditional views -- of trails as rural and recreational — were certainly one part of the conference. Cecelia Vogt, first president of the Washington State Trails Coalition, said that trails matter because they get people outside and improve the health and economies of communities. “Trail heads bring people to small towns that they might not otherwise visit,” she explained. “And they generate jobs in areas that need them.”
But "transportation gateways,” is how Chukundi Salisbury, trails coordinator for the City of Seattle, describes trails. “We’re the fastest growing city in America. All these people move here every day. …Where are [they] going to recreate? How are they going to get from point A to B?” (A good point, even if we’re not necessarily the "fastest growing city in America" in the way most people might think of it.)
“The only way for our city to grow and not become more congested is to have these bike lanes and alternative ways for people to get around,” Salisbury continued, “That’s what I would say to the detractors: The city is growing. If not trails, then what’s your answer?”
2. Trails aren’t just for white people.
Conference-goers spoke openly about what is arguably the biggest elephant in the outdoor industry room: diversity. “We do not all have equal access [to the outdoors],” said Washington Trails Association’s digital content manager Loren Drummond during one panel discussion on the subject. “I think everyone in this room knows that.”
Citing the Green 2.0 report, Drummond’s fellow panelist, Grist senior editor Greg Hanscom, said that “37 percent of the U.S. population is minority, people of color. When you look at the paid staff of conservation groups and green groups around the country, 12 percent of our staffs are people of color. … These are huge gaps.”
The glaring lack of diversity is no surprise to anyone involved in the outdoor industry or the environmental movement. What was surprising, or at least unusual, was hearing so many people speak candidly about the history of the problem, and the potential for realistic solutions. The Washington Trails Association, for example, has a free gear-lending library in South Seattle, as well as outdoor leadership workshops that are geared towards inclusivity.
That’s a promising start, but there’s still a lot of work to do. "The demographics just demand it,” said Hanscom. “If, 10 years down the road, we want to have a public that cares about public lands. …we simply need to involve a community that looks like the American public looks.”
3. Seattle, according to Mia Birk
The City of Seattle has about 120 miles of trail. Is that enough?
Not for Mia Birk, president of Alta Planning and Design, but she thinks we’re getting there: “For a long time," said Birk, the keynote speaker at last weekend's conference. "Seattle was lacking street bikeways.”
Known for helping to make Portland one of the most bike-friendly cities in America, Birk knows a thing or two about using trails as transportation. She was Portland’s Bicycle Program Manager for six years and she now runs the company responsible for Seattle’s new Pronto Cycle Share.
While she praised the work of Seattle city staffers and the city's bike advocates/organizations, like Cascade Bicycle Club, she allowed that the commitment of Seattle’s political leaders has run warm and cold over the years.
Birk, who helped with behind-the-scenes fundraising efforts, is convinced that Seattle’s new bike share program “wouldn’t have happened” without the wiles of Mayor Ed Murray. She recounted how Murray just “picked up the phone and called the CEO of Alaska Airlines and he invited them, very politely, to be the [Pronto! Program] sponsor — or, by the way, Delta is going to be the sponsor. And then he called the CEO of Delta and did the same thing. …He was very instrumental in getting that funding raised for the City of Seattle bike share.”
Birk is no Seattle expert, but she did have good things to say about the future of cycling in the Emerald City. She called our Bike Master Plan a “beautiful” document and said that, based on week-one results, Seattle’s Pronto Cycle Share has been Alta’s “most successful launch, with over 1,000 rides on the first day.”
If the buzz in Bellingham was any indication, things in the “trail” and “outdoor” worlds have undergone significant changes since the inception of the WSTC.
"When the WSTC was first established nearly 20 years ago the word 'trails' generally conjured images of quiet recreational paths inside state and national parks, forests and other public lands,” said Michael Linde, Chief of Partnership Programs for the National Park Service. In contrast, he said, “ ‘Trails’ are now everywhere and they exist for many purposes… Increasingly, [they] now connect with other trails to provide limitless opportunities for local families and visitors alike to get out of a car or bus and appreciate their neighborhood, town or city anew.”
As trail lovers and city dwellers alike continue to expand this definition of “trail,” let’s hope we can also expand the diversity of the people who use them.