For the last 24 years, a small group of volunteers has been piecing together a trail, mile by mile, section by section, that when complete will rival any in the country in terms of beauty, length and sheer scenic diversity.
But the community-driven effort for a continuous 126-mile trail along the wild coast of the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington is right now facing a challenge that threatens to undercut two decades of grassroots organizing and fundraising.
Few doubt the tremendous potential of the Olympic Discovery Trail, a plan to construct a continuous recreational trail from Port Townsend on the northeast tip of the peninsula across to the Pacific Ocean. Already, local businesses are benefitting from the many visitors completed sections of the trail bring to the area. Last year, President Obama heralded the trail project during the launch of the America's Great Outdoors initiative to connect Americans with the nation's natural heritage.
And there is a lot at stake for the myriad communities on the peninsula's northern coast. Similar trail projects elsewhere have almost single-handedly revived flagging economies and stemmed the population drain that often accompanies the decline of primary industries. The 141-mile Great Allegheny Passage, through rural Pennsylvania and Maryland, which cost a total of $70 million to construct, generates more than $40 million in money spent directly in towns along the trail each year. The spectacular coastal scenery of the Olympic Peninsula, almost without peer, would make the trail a national and even international destination.
But just as the trail's completion began to look like a real possibility, organizers have now been handed a seemingly insurmountable demand from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), the land manager of a section of the trail at the south end of Discovery Bay. The challenge: raise $45,000 to pay for the design of a 2,000-foot section of trail to circumvent a sensitive wetland area. The bigger challenge: do so by March 31.
Following years of an informal understanding that hikers, bikers and riders would one day be able to pass along a section of unused railroad corridor at the south end of the bay, last fall WDFW suddenly announced that restoration plans for the area would include razing the railroad grade, and prohibiting recreational passage.
According to Andrew Stevenson, co-president of the nonprofit Peninsula Trails Coalition (PTC) behind the trail's development, the group has long been aware that the rail grade would one day be removed. But the announcement that restoration plans also included removing an existing short trestle, a vital connector for trail users, put a substantial block in the trail and left PTC with little time to find an alternative.
"The ecological restoration of the watershed is really important to us," Stevenson says, adding that PTC has for years enjoyed a strong relationship with the North Olympic Salmon Coalition (NOSC), the entity overseeing the restoration project on behalf of WDFW. "We'd like to see the restoration goals achieved, just as much as we'd like to see the recreation goals achieved. These things go hand in hand. We hope to work with the restoration effort for a real win-win, for locals, for visitors to the area, and for the local economy."
Stevenson's commitment to ensuring an Olympic Discovery Trail does not interfere with local conservation efforts is not just friendly talk. Responding to the sudden and unexpected changes to the estuary's conservation plan, PTC quickly devised a plan to move the trail off the railgrade to a new route along the embankment of nearby U.S. Highway 101.
"This new route, so close to the highway, is far from optimal," Stevenson says, describing the topographical choke point between the south end of the bay and U.S. 101. "But it's what we have to work with. We're only a small nonprofit—we don't own any of the land ourselves, so have to rely on the supportive agencies and counties that understand the utility of the trail, to let it pass through." PTC must raise the $45,000 to pay for the study by March 31 in order to meet WDFW's restoration schedules, and to be included in the permitting process for the site.
"We have defined a cooperative program to develop the trail design and integrate it into the larger project, and are working with the North Olympic Salmon Coalition to get the job done," Stevenson says. "But completing the design in concert with the rest of the restoration plan is critical. We must either meet this schedule or give up the idea of safely connecting the Port Townsend end of the trail with Sequim, Port Angeles and other western portions of the Olympic Discovery Trail."
Spurred by small donations from their large group of local supporters, PTC has been able to raise about $23,000 so far. Without a corporate sponsor or major donor, PTC was forced to withdraw from its contingency fund $10,000, saved up dollar by dollar during the 20 years of their existence, leaving them about $12,000 short of the goal with less than four weeks remaining.
"Our supporters come from the communities around here, and some friends throughout the state," Stevenson says. "You're talking about regular folks. The biggest single donation we've had is about $2,000. The people are giving what they can spare to make this happen."
Stevenson knows that, beyond the design phase, about $650,000 will be needed for actual construction. But given the immensity of the challenge, he is trying to face one obstacle at a time.
"First, we need to get the project shovel-ready," he says. "That means paying for the design. After that, the project will be eligible for grant funding. Once the restoration work begins this spring, we'll have a two-year window to get the trail built before the necessary permits expire."
Stevenson is trying hard not to "cry wolf." But there is no getting around the geographical significance of this small section of the trail.
"If this doesn't happen—if we can't get around the southern point of the bay—then the concept of a Puget Sound to Pacific Ocean trail dies," he says, reflecting on the decades of progress, of hard-fought wins, that brought the trail to this point. "If we have to raise the money, we'll raise the money. If it has to go to court, it has to go to court. A lot of people have put in a lot of work to get to this point. We'll put everything we've got on the table."