The Greenway way

Obama team visits I-90 corridor to discover local secrets for conserving vital green spaces and how to build a lasting love of America’s Great Outdoors

The mist drifting across Mt Si; a still, silent morning; the cool, clear expanses like an ocean through the valley. The serene Snoqualmie Point Park feels like a long way from the glittery retail congestion of Bellevue or the grids and subdivisions of the Issaquah Highlands.

It is the kind of place that people who live around here sometimes take for granted – parks, trails and green spaces are one of the defining characteristics of the corridor along Interstate 90. It is hard to imagine a time when people had very different plans for the land.

But Snoqualmie Point was once slated for an eight-story office park, until the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust stepped in and, with the help of the Gates Foundation, the City of Snoqualmie, and a number of public agencies, was able to conserve the site.

Similarly, to this day there are fire hydrants built into Rattlesnake Mountain, relics of the early stages of a subdivision planned for the area.

The fact that Snoqualmie Point and Rattlesnake Mountain are now two of the region’s most treasured recreation resources is a tribute to the Greenway’s ability to bring disparate groups to the negotiating table in order to find better uses for valuable land than traditional development. In the last two decades, their success as facilitators has secured more than 200,000 acres along the I-90 corridor for public recreation, building an identity for the region which is heralded in Washington and beyond.

The success of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust has drawn the attention of federal department heads in Washington D.C., who visited the area last Thursday to discuss ways to encourage Americans to do more in the great outdoors. The visit, by head honchos from federal fish, wildlife and parks departments, was part of the America’s Great Outdoors program, an initiative launched by President Barack Obama this year. The field visit to Snoqualmie Point was one of 20 stops department heads will make over the next few months, to explore community-run recreation and conservation activities and, most importantly, to listen to people’s stories about what works, what doesn’t work, and what might work, in building communities better engaged with wilderness areas.

“One thing we’ve learned from these listening sessions is that we need to shut up and listen to you,” Director of the National Parks Service (NPS) Jon Jarvis told those assembled at Snoqualmie Point. Jarvis was joined at the event by Department of the Interior (DOI) Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Will Shafroth, Deputy Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, Jay Jenson, and former Washingtonian Mike Gauthier, now DOI liaison to the NPS for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.

But the key to the field visit was the input of a number of locals connected with the land, including King County Forester Kristi McClelland, President of the Middle Fork Outdoor Recreation Coalition Mark Boyar, Issaquah’s Ken Konigsmark, and Hillside Community School student Amy Spens.

With an eye to the future, the comments of teenagers like Spens are crucial to developing a great outdoors plan that will be relevant to generations to come.

Spens, who has volunteered with Mountains to Sound Greenway, said that even popular and successful groups like the Greenway could do a better job of reaching out to younger people.

“I know the Greenway has a facebook page, for example, but they don’t really advertise it very well,” she said. “Even though there are always lots of students at the volunteer events, there is probably something that could make the events more teen friendly.”

With the stunning Snoqualmie Point vista as her backdrop, Spens said the wilderness areas along the I-90 corridor, and the Greenway’s program of involving volunteers with their preservation, were irreplaceable resources.

“The Greenway is far more than just a collection of land,” she said. “It lets us blow off steam, loosen up, and get back to our roots. It satisfies that desire to work with your hands and see the tangible, physical product like a turnpike or a field of newly-planted trees, and it offers an escape from the daily grind. The world is picking up speed like a runaway freight train, but the Greenway helps us to see the bigger picture by giving us a way to give back.”

The importance of encouraging young people to take an interest in the outdoors is a message not lost on local schools, the City of Issaquah, or groups like the Foothills Branch of the Mountaineers. Foothills Branch Chair Fran Troje said the group was ramping up its efforts to reach out to young children, by targeting young parents.

“By providing all-season outdoor recreation opportunities to the parents of the next generation, the joys of being outside will be passed on as these children participate in shared adventures,” she said, adding the branch was planning to add a number of youth components.

“Exposing youngsters to the importance of stewardship of our natural places instills in them an early desire to be part of those that protect the wildlife, waterways, forests, and the natural environment,” she said.

With how to connect urban teens with outdoor activities one of President Obama’s priorities, that evening the AGO team held a listening session at Franklin High School in Seattle.

A key message of the AGO visit was that wilderness areas like this do not happen by accident.

Ken Konigsmark, a member of the Central Issaquah Plan Task Force and the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust Board of Directors, said the ability of the Greenway to build relationships in the name of land acquisition and conservation had an enormous impact on the state.

“You cannot overstate its importance to the quality of life of people in this region,” Konigsmark said. “The 140 land acquisitions over the last 20 years is an amazing story – an incredible legacy of accomplishment.”

Mayor of Issaquah Ava Frisinger, a member of the Greenway’s Advisory Council, told The Reporter that the key to the Greenway’s success was that it used small land acquisitions to negotiate larger conservation areas, through building private and public partnerships. She said the Greenway’s story was an important lesson for the America’s Great Outdoors program.

The Greenway’s role is not to buy property themselves, but to encourage private and government agencies to do so, and work out a plan to secure that property as public green space.

For example, it was the Greenway who facilitated the preservation of 40 acres of land connecting Squak and Cougar Mountains, bringing together the City of Issaquah, King County, Recreation and Conservation Office and Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program.

“Their story of partnerships, and working with an array of organizations that don’t normally talk to each other has been a very positive thing for the greenway,” she said. “The way they leverage land acquisitions, it could be a template for America’s Great Outdoors, particularly given the federal government doesn’t have a great deal of money at the moment.”

Greenway Deputy Director Doug Schindler agreed, saying that while there were many groups dedicated to particularly ecological or commercial issues, they often missed the opportunity to pool resources and energy.

“So you see the fire protection people working on fire protection, the forestry people working on forestry issues, the salmon people working on salmon issues, and sometimes they have their blinders on, regarding the benefit of collaborating around a certain asset,” he said. “Collaboration is the key. The federal government can’t do it alone. The Greenway stands out as a good model of what can be achieved when you bring groups together.”

But, Schindler said, praise for the Greenway’s efforts so far should not cloud the realities of what challenges remained.

“As we heard from the forestry community, it is great that we have been able to preserve a certain amount of working forests, but there is still a lot of work to do to keep those forests healthy,” he said. “Likewise, while the recreation community are pleased we have been able secure lands of for recreation, there is still a lot of work to do to educate people, to make the parks safe. What we have done is preserve options for the future, but there is still a lot of work to be done. We are not funding these lands as we should.”