Trails don’t talk, but they do tell tales.
And the common theme is economic prosperity, according to participants at last week’s South West Crown Regional Trail Conference in Seeley Lake.
“We found that for every dollar spent on a ski trail pass, $26 was spent in the local economy,” Methow Trails program manager Danica Ready told the multi-state gathering. “The tax revenue is huge. But that didn't happen overnight.”
Methow County is one of Washington’s largest and poorest.
It had depended on logging and agriculture when, 37 years ago, developers from Colorado’s Aspen area started developing plans for a big downhill ski complex. That idea fizzled, leaving a few platted resort communities, but no lifts or lodges on the east side of the Cascade Mountain Range.
“We wondered – can you create an economy based just on Nordic trails?” Ready told the Double Arrow Lodge audience. “About 50 percent of our trails are in the national forest. We worked with another 170 landowners to get trail easements. Once we had momentum, it got easier and easier.”
A Nordic ski day pass at Methow Trails costs $24, and opens the gate to 200 kilometers of groomed ski routes. Ready said one thing the program has learned is Nordic skiers expect to pay for their trail access – while hikers and bikers in the summer are much less eager.
Another thing is that about 80 percent of the money comes in during the roughly 10 days surrounding Christmas and New Year’s Day, but that’s enough to support activity the rest of the year.
One thing the Methow Trails didn’t have was a network like the 60 people who attended the two-day trail conference. They came from small nonprofit groups and federal agencies, elementary schools and tribal governments, motorized user clubs and horse outfitters.
During breaks, it was common to see someone like Milltown State Park manager Mike Kustudia comparing notes with Superior Ranger District recreation specialist Beth Kennedy about how to restore old railroad tunnels on rails-to-trails projects.
Kustudia struggles with one on the Kim Williams Trail just east of Missoula, while Kennedy has opened one on the Route of the Olympian by Taft.
The Milltown Overlook portion of the park has a new trail going in this week that leads from the bluff above the former Clark Fork River dam site down to the floodplain. Someday, Kustudia said he hopes to have the resources to open the tunnel under the overlook so walkers and riders can travel from the University of Montana campus all the way to the restored Clark Fork-Blackfoot river confluence.
Justifying such projects could become easier, thanks to a new Trail Benefits Library of research on trails developed last winter. Megan Lawson of Headwaters Economics demonstrated how the collection of more than 100 studies can answer questions raised by grant applications, government agencies or donors about a trail’s need.
“You can show what a day of hiking is worth to me, what kind of change in property values occur, calculate the health benefits to a community, and show how many people are using them,” Lawson said.
For example, one study showed how neighborhoods resisted a trail project until it included adequate privacy fencing – after which people wanted more access points.
Wilderness trails don’t do much for home values, but they do have an impact on businesses located near the trailheads.
Another challenge is simply publicizing where the trails are. Melanie Parker of Northwest Connections said the Swan Valley has lots of maps showing trails into the Mission Mountains and Bob Marshall wildernesses.
But almost nothing shows the numerous trails on the valley floor, which are more accessible for bike riders, cross-country skiers and people who don’t want an axle-testing ride into the high country.
“We’ve got to work on that,” Parker said. “It takes a community to build a trail, but trails also build communities.”