By Michael McDowell, Newsletter Editor, Trailkeepers of Oregon
On August 15, John Sparks and Michael McDowell met with three Trailkeepers of Oregon board members at the Lucky Lab Pub in Multnomah Village to discuss TKO advocacy and policy: Tom Kloster is a founding member and past TKO board president; Ben Hedstrom and Jaime English are the newest board members, having joined the board in early 2018.
Responses have been edited for concision and clarity.
How did you all come to TKO and develop an interest in trail advocacy?
Jaime English: I grew up in Oregon. We’d spend a week every summer at the beach and a week every summer in Redmond, in Central Oregon. I had a passion for the great diversity of landscapes that Oregon offers. I really valued the recreational experience that particularly State Parks offers at the coast and in the Gorge. I connected first with TKO as the interim planning manager for Oregon State Parks, where I led the Oregon State Parks master plan for all 33 parks in the Gorge. Ben and I worked together on the planning process, including extensive community outreach. During the process our conversations with the community ended up being about more than State Parks. As a part of the scenic area, State Parks’ properties in the Gorge are connected to US Forest Service land, Friends of the Gorge land, cities, counties, etcetera. Tom represented TKO and shared a lot of great insights into the trail planning needs within State Parks and beyond. After State Parks, I moved to Portland Parks for three years, and now I’m joining a firm called Learning Landscapes. They specialize in designing landscapes that connect people of all ages, especially kids, to nature through play and learning. And that’s what a trail is, a connection to nature. It’s a walking experience, but it’s the stuff on the sides of the trail that are why you go on that trail, right? It’s the nature along the trail, the landscape, that inspires you to be there. Trails are a way to get out to experience the landscape and appreciate the bigger picture.
Ben Hedstrom: I was trained as a landscape architect. I have worked about five years in the public sector, at Oregon State Parks as a park planner, which naturally included trails, and now at Metro Parks. I’m from all over, really. I was born in Indonesia and grew up in California, in the Bay Area. I would hike at Muir Woods as soon as I could get a car and drive, and on Mount Diablo. I also lived in Vermont and upstate New York, and now Oregon. I’ve enjoyed hiking a variety of trails around the country.
Tom Kloster: In 2006 I met Jeff Statt and Jeff Black, two hikers who had set up the Portland Hikers Forum. It was through creating a nonprofit to operate the Portland Hikers Forum and Field Guide that had us start thinking about a stewardship program. It quickly became clear that stewardship should be the main thing. I mostly came in as an author of field guide entries, but I also love doing trail stewardship and have five trails that I take care of informally. In the ’80s we saw our trails being moved out of the way so the big trees could be cut down. The ’80s was an immense period of destruction for all trails in the Northwest. What really hit me was that erasing trails was part of how it was being pulled off. The further the trailhead got up the mountain, the fewer people would try to figure out how to get to it. The Old Vista Ridge is a good example. That trail was abandoned because at one time the Forest Service was going to connect roads over that ridge at a couple of spots and all that would have been logged. To me, conservationists are born when people go out on trails and walk on public land and go “Wow! There are so many things I love about this.” So that’s my theme. Trails are a gateway to conservation.
As TKO board members, how do your view your advocacy for trails?
Jaime: One of the things I took away from the Gorge planning process was recognizing that it was a scenic area. We were not the first people to think about how to take care of the Gorge. There were and are so many people who were passionate and cared about it. I appreciate that it was that advocacy over generations that led us to having the scenic area. What I could do as a public servant was one thing, but what I could do as an advocate was another. I kind of connected the dots.
Tom: There’s a pretty pronounced and I think fair divide among conservationists between “Lock ’em out” and “Let ’em in.” The “Lock ’em out” stance is based on the fact that people can damage resources and it’s hard to keep things intact, especially wildlife, when people are there. The “Let ’em in” camp, which I think all three of us fall into, believes that if the greater public doesn’t understand what their public lands represent, what they are, then you’ve already lost the battle. That’s the greater risk—losing the hearts and minds. I’m firmly in the “Let ’em in” camp. One of the roles for Trailkeepers, as I see it, is to get rid of that false choice. I don’t think it’s one or the other. It’s both.
Ben: When you’re working in the public sector for a while, you start to realize that nobody’s in the business of buying up big swaths of land and building brand new parks. Trails represent the type of park that people are culturally after now—linear parks, and longer experiences through wilderness and natural areas. That’s really the most exciting part of planning parks these days. Nobody’s building brand new welcome centers or visitor centers or even giant city parks, right?
How does TKO formulate policy?
Ben: It’s in process. We’re still finding out as new board members. And that’s part of our job. It’s a challenge because we’re still formulating ideas around TKO’s stance on a number of issues related to trails. In the coming year we’re working on understanding how and when we take a stance as an organization.
Jaime: The Gorge fire was actually a big catalyst for me, leading me to reconnect with Tom and talk about joining the TKO board. I had since moved on from State Parks, but like the many planners that had come before, I cared a lot about what happened in the Gorge after spending so much time out there. After the fire we had the old Columbia River Highway closed, and a lot of trails had been greatly impacted over the years with more and more people visiting them. There was a lot of sorrow and concern for the Gorge at having had a fire but also a sense of OK, this is going to make us stop and think: How can we take a minute and do even better by the Gorge going forward as advocates, as a community?
Ben: I think we all recognize after the fires in the Gorge that there’s a need to get things open, a need to fix things out there. But there were issues pre-fire that weren’t being addressed.
Jaime: I think Angel’s Rest is a great example. It was completely overwhelmed by visitation. At the top viewpoint, the landscape was really impacted by the number of people that were up there, and at the base, people were parking on the shoulder of the old highway up and down that section. It was creating safety issues for other drivers and pedestrians and overwhelming the land managers for how to manage the use. So this is an opportunity to give Angel’s Rest a rest, and hopefully advocate for an actual loop so it’s not just up and back. It increases the amount of foot traffic when you have people going up and back on the same route.
Ben: From an advocacy perspective, we’re in a unique position at TKO. We are helping the public understand what it takes to build a trail and take care of a trail for the long run. I think a lot of people look at a trail and think it’s always been there. They don’t recognize the work and the effort that goes into not only constructing a trail but maintaining it for the long run. From a public agency perspective, we recognize very clearly the gaps that are out there between great ideas and actually getting them done and implementing them. Tom, you mentioned how many trail managers were lost in the ’80s in the Gorge, something like a reduction from 22 to three overnight. There’s not only a gap in work, but knowledge has also been lost over time. Some of the work that TKO is doing from an education and training perspective is really valuable to agencies.
Tom: Steve [Kruger, TKO executive director], because he was within State Parks, saw that we needed to reach out to a new generation of public agencies. It still blows my mind that at our recent Tread School we had 70 or 80 people show up to spend a weekend learning how to build trail treads. That’s phenomenal. And a bunch were public agency staff. And then we had Rock School, with a smaller turnout, but it’s the same theme, to have volunteers who are actually really savvy, and understand trail construction as much as anybody.
Jaime: Especially because of retirements, we have a lot of new staff that need to learn a lot of new skills.
Tom: I think the public is ten or fifteen, maybe twenty years behind the reality curve of public lands and funding. I think it’s our role to get people to see that it isn’t for free, it didn’t happen by magic. People assume the Gorge fire is being taken care of. There’s the infamous “they.” “Well, they’ll be fixing that, right?” In the Gorge, “they” is about five different agencies involved, and no, they won’t. It’s probably a volunteer crew—WTA [Washington Trails Association] or TKO. We can do a lot as volunteers, but we also need to restore the agency staff. We should have thirty trail staff out there working trails in the Gorge every year, as we once had, not six. It’s our job to bring the tide back up again with our advocacy. The amount of money that public lands require is so tiny that it really just needs muscle to make it happen. It’s not really about the money, it’s about the priority at the federal level. And it’s somewhat true in Oregon state funding, too.
Since we’re Trailkeepers of all Oregon, what are your thoughts about what else we might become engaged with in the future, beyond the Gorge?
Ben: Definitely the Oregon Coast Trail, and the coastal connections. I’ve planned trails all across the state, and it’s not any different. Smith Rock’s facing a lot of the same issues that the Gorge is. There are a lot of strategies out there to manage that capacity at parks all across Oregon. With the projected increases in population across our state, it’s not going to get better, frankly. The Wallowas will be next, right? TKO’s really come a long way in a just a couple of years. From a land management perspective it was, “Well, let’s see what they can do,” right? “Let’s give them a small project and see what they can do.” We’re proving ourselves and coming back with bigger and bigger projects across the state, with vital lessons we’re learning in places like the Gorge and the Oregon coast.
Jaime: I’m really excited about what we can do on the coast. There’s so much potential there for thoughtful connections between our beaches—which are also trails. It’s been a vision for a long time and I think TKO can help make it come to fruition in a lot of places where it’s not quite connecting.
Tom: We also need to look at some new connections in communities both in and beyond the Portland metro area, given that we’re a growing state. I think that we’re going to move out gradually in concentric circles from Portland because our donor and volunteer base is strongest here. We’re starting in Hood River—we have a bunch of trails we’ve built now in Punchbowl Falls Park. I think we’ve already inspired local crew leaders out of that effort. In small communities outside the Portland sphere it’ll be a different kind of volunteer program. It may be more long-term super-committed volunteers in a smaller number.
In relation to trail advocacy, can each of you name a specific “pet project” you would like TKO to take up?
Ben: I’m really excited about creating a tool for our website to provide a vision of what TKO would like to see happen, not just for the Gorge, but for the whole state. It would be ideal to have something visual to enable our members and people new to TKO to instantly understand our larger vision for particular places. Taking the maps that Tom has made and showing them in the context of the region they serve would let public agencies’ land managers as well as the general public understand how our ideas for trails address managing ever larger crowds. These maps could be linked with tables showing current problems and describing necessary steps to solutions. A lot of our recommendations center on public land, with no need for additional acquisitions.
Jaime: I’m going to say Rooster Rock. Rooster Rock has the potential to have a mile-and-a-half-long, completely accessible trail right along the waterfront, with beautiful, amazing, scenic Gorge views all the way along it. That is not something that’s easy to come by in the Gorge. Most of the trails in the Gorge are on steep slopes and are very minimally accessible to anyone with mobility issues. We need a place where families can go and have a trail experience with their grandparents and with their little kids. It could be a great part of the waterfall loop, where you drive on the old highway and see the waterfalls and then you come back on I-84 and stop at Rooster Rock, or the other way around. That accessibility piece, the need for varied levels of mobility for a broader audience, I think is really important. Rooster Rock’s opportunity is an example of what that could look like in a lot of places.
Tom: I’m going to do a three-pack. Part one is figuring out how to turn the old Bridal Veil mill site into an arrival center, interpretive center, trailhead, all of the above. I would have people have to go in and look at a map at least to figure out “Where are you going?” It could be a massive improvement on managing crowds on the scenic highway in the Gorge. You could actually have an Angel’s Rest trailhead there to make a one-way loop that we’ve talked about. A one-way loop could greatly reduce the sense of crowding and conflict on that trail. You’re still passing people, but not nearly as many as an up-and-back trail. And it could also be the way to go to the Bridal Veil Canyon trail, which has two large waterfalls. That could be like the Latourell Canyon trail. I have proposed different versions of it, but basically a nice family route. It would be about three miles up and back, and the first hundred yards of Bridal Veil mill to Bridal Veil Falls could actually be a fully accessible trail. I’m thinking international tourists, people like that could come in, and really have a great waterfall experience right off the freeway exit, and not be at an overused spot like Wahkeena Falls, Multnomah Falls, or Eagle Creek.