As spring advances and summer looms, the valley’s trail users – hikers, runners, bikers, horse riders, and climbers – are looking for opportunities, and trail work has begun in earnest.
On May 5, Gov. Jay Inslee re-opened outdoor recreation on state lands, giving the green light to Methow Valley residents to get out on the trails, and coming at a time when trail managers are beginning work on creating, checking-in on, and maintaining trail systems in the valley.
“Our focus this spring is our trail maintenance,” said Erika Kercher Halm, outreach and access manager for Methow Trails. “The trail staff are used to working pretty independently, so they’re pretty well set up for working in an isolated way.”
“With our staff, we’ve upped our sanitization practices across the board,” Halm said. “There are sanitizers and hand wipes in every vehicle. We’re sanitizing our trucks. People are already wearing gloves; you know work gloves. It’s hard to imagine a scenario this season where we wouldn’t have some sort of precautions in place.”
While trails are being worked on, trail building, or the creation of new trails, has been put on hold at Methow Trails – “primarily because all of the folks working on [trail building] can’t safely work, from a social distancing standpoint,” said Halm.
She noted that a few specific projects the organization had planned to start this spring have had to be put on hold. One is the building of new trails at Lewis Butte and Riser Lake, a collaboration with Methow Valley Trails Collaborative, a project that was planned to commence this spring.
“The bulk of that work would have been done on community work party days, where you have 40 or 50 people who put in a lot of work over a single weekend,” said Halm.
Also on hold are volunteer work parties, which typically happen every third Thursday, and which Methow Trails hopes to resume later in the season.
Apart from trail work, Methow Trails has been working to get new signage up at open trailheads, to educate users on how to recreate responsibly during the pandemic.
The Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance’s Methow Chapter has begun work on trail building, including the creation of two new trails at Sun Mountain, the development of an uphill beginning connector to the famed Buck Mountain Loop trail, and the continued development and groundbreaking of the Liberty Bell High School Trail, an almost 5-mile mixed-use trail that will be open to the public and allow for on-campus training for the valley’s competitive high school mountain bike team.
“Trail construction on Chickadee by the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, and by the Access Fund Conservation Team at Fun Rocks Climbing area [are in progress],” said Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Climbing Ranger Zachery Winter.
“We do have some trail work going on in the valley, [but] mainly through our partners right now,” said Winter, noting that start dates for U.S. Forest Service trail crews have been pushed back by a month.
“Our Forest Service trail crew will be showing up to work after the Memorial Day holiday and getting out on the trails shortly thereafter,” Winter said. “Our [trail construction] season will certainly be impacted, but we don’t know exactly what all of those impacts are right now.”
“We’re developing risk assessments for all of the work we’re doing … We’ll be wearing masks when we can’t mitigate distance, providing for handwashing and disinfecting, and regularly disinfecting tools,” said Winter. “We don’t think work in the field will look too different; we’ll start with our front country trails and see how things go before we progress into the backcountry.”
Work at Fun Rock
Winter noted that the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest’s first trail building project of the season has already begun, a partnership with rock climbing land-use advocacy nonprofit the Access Fund.
“Access Fund Conservation Teams, a group of trail workers that specifically focuses on climbing area infrastructure, will be working at Fun Rock [in Mazama], and continuing the work that has been started by local volunteers and USFS climbing rangers in previous seasons,” he said.
“We’ve been all together since the beginning of this thing, so we’re treated as a social unit,” said Jake Groth, Access Fund Conservation Team member, during a break from constructing rock walls at Fun Rock last week.
At the trailhead to Fun Rocks, the four-person Access Fund Conservation Team had a sanitation table set up for themselves, and potentially in preparation for volunteer days. “We’d definitely like to get volunteers to work on projects,” said Groth, who plans to host smaller groups of volunteers for trail work days in the future.
“Volunteers are a very important piece of accomplishing our mission, particularly in trails,” said Winter. “We anticipate that volunteers will be expected to adhere to the guidelines laid out in our risk assessments, and it is likely that volunteer work will be done in smaller groups than in previous seasons.”
State parks and public lands managed by the Department of Natural Resources and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife opened for day use on May 5, a decision which is now being followed by National Forest lands in Washington state.
“The Forest Service is making every effort the expand access within the context of CDC guidelines and state and local government orders for residents. To be in alignment with our Washington state partners, we will start a phased reopening of many recreation sites on May 22,” said Forest Supervisor of the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest Kristin Bail.
“We’re working closely with our partners to determine if work can be done safely, and developing plans that align with directions from the governor’s office,” said Winter. “Above all else, the collective safety of our employees, partners, and public has been, and will continue to be, the chief priority and consideration behind all decisions made and actions taken.”