Rising from Tragedy: Progress, Partnerships and Potential on the Whitehorse Trail

Posted 10/15/14 by Laura Cohen in Building Trails

Photo courtesy Washington Bikes

Branching off from the ever-popular 30-mile Centennial Trail in Snohomish County, Wash., the largely undeveloped Whitehorse Trail runs through the heart of Washington State’s Stillaguamish Valley, from Arlington via Oso, ending at the foot of the Cascade Range in the small town of Darrington. 

While the vision of converting this former rail line into a destination 27-mile rail-trail has existed for years, a March 2014 landslide ripped across the Stillaguamish Valley. The landslide’s devastation killed 43 people, buried more than one mile of the highway and adjacent rail bed and left the rail-trail vision in limbo.

But the local communities are rebuilding and recovering from this tragedy, and the Whitehorse Trail’s future grows brighter each day through a combination of partnerships and a realization of the outdoor recreation and economic development potential of the rail-trail. The ultimate vision is to connect the Whitehorse Trail to the existing Centennial Trail, linking a growing 120-mile regional trail network across Snohomish and King counties.

Photo courtesy Washington Bikes

Tourism represents the third-largest sector of the Snohomish County economy, and in the post-landslide recovery, area leaders have been eager to communicate that Snohomish County is open for business and welcoming visitors. This is something that Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin recognized early in the recovery efforts, stating, “I truly believe that biking in the Stilly Valley and Darrington area has great potential and opportunity.”

To help in this effort, Washington Bikes has stepped in with its policy expertise; currently, the nonprofit is working with a number of strong partners to make a compelling case for bike tourism as a strategic part of their economic recovery strategy.

Recovery efforts have resulted in rapid cleanup of many miles of the trail, by virtue of the cross-collaboration—facilitated by Washington Bikes—of local, state and federal officials working with passionate community groups and trail advocates. Immediately after the landslide, Washington Bikes successfully advocated for the Whitehorse Trail to be a recipient of federal disaster assistance, and also collaborated on efforts to secure state grants to support improvements needed for the creation of the 27-mile trail for bikers, hikers, equestrians and river rafters.

A federal Workforce Development grant (which provides jobs for people who have faced long-term unemployment or job displacement) put 80-plus people to work clearing and grading sections of the trail. These people live in the immediate area and, therefore, get to enjoy the fruits of their labors with long walks on the Whitehorse Trail corridor.

At a recent public event to celebrate the progress of the trail and its future potential—which was attended by Congressional representatives and many state and local officials—Snohomish County Parks and Recreation Director Tom Teigen said enthusiastically, “The partnership we’ve put together is really incredible; local, state, federal, private donations have all come together to get us to this point. And we’re here today thanks to Washington Bikes helping us connect the dots to be poised for even more progress on the trail.”

An anonymous couple has donated more than $300,000 to the effort, enabling Snohomish County to repair and reinforce numerous bridges along the trail, which will further aid the implementation of additional trail improvements. Additionally, this donation, together with investments by Snohomish County Parks and Recreation and federal disaster relief funds for cleanup and repair, is providing the matching funding for a proposal to the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Grant Program in the upcoming legislative session, a grant program that Washington Bikes will be advocating to expand to create more opportunities for trails like the Whitehorse.

The turnaround from the landslide’s devastation is remarkable. The Whitehorse Trail has gone from a long-term vision to a short-term priority. Through the power and momentum of partnerships, this trail, and the larger trail network it will help create, will soon be a transportation and recreation amenity—helping the people of Snohomish County rise from tragedy and bringing in a new era of economic prosperity.

RTC is partnering with Washington Bikes to help generate funding support for the trail project. For more information or to learn how to get involved in these efforts, contact RTC’s Western Regional Office or go to www.wabikes.org.

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