South Sound trails need their next generation of heroes

ForeverGreen is pretty gray.

It’s one of the first things I noticed when I dropped by the ForeverGreen Pierce County Trails Conference last week at the Point Defiance Park Pagoda.

That’s hardly a bad thing. Spending decades fighting for trails with the odds stacked against you is enough to make anybody a little grayer. Considering the exciting times we’re in, with trail projects around the South Sound moving forward, that gray should be a badge of honor.

On this particular night, the pagoda was filled with many of the heroes of the South Sound’s growing trails system — stewards, advocates, county and city officials. All working to make the region’s grand trail vision come true.

Still, I couldn’t help but think this isn’t what I see on the trails. The doers might be graying, but the users aren’t. Trails such as Gig Harbor’s Cushman Trail, Tacoma’s Scott Pierson Trail and East Pierce County’s Foothills Trail all lure legions of young users. Cyclists. Walkers. Runners. Horsemen. Skateboarders.

This is precisely what this room of advocates likes to see. They want these trails to be places that lure users of all ages to get outside, get fit, and get from community to community.

But when ForeverGreen president Bryan Bowden displayed a map showing the Pierce County trail vision — trails linking every community and major point of interest —and then a second map showing the work that’s complete, it became evident that there is still an immense amount of work to do.

At some point this league of trail heroes is going to need to pass the torch to the next generation.

Bowden, a member of the Foothills Rails-to-Trails Coalition, says this hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“We joke that I’m 60 years old and I’m one of the youngest members,” Bowden said. “It’s an issue. We all recognize it and want to do something about it.”

At the end of the conference, an award was given to the Russell Family Foundation, a thank you for its 10-year, $10 million Puyallup Watershed Initiative.

The foundation has promised $1 million per year for the next decade to support organizations dedicated to improving the health of the watershed and its communities. The initiative speaks of such interests as agriculture, salmon, forestry, social equality and trails.

Bowden believes trails can knit many of these ideas together. They literally link communities, provide an environmentally friendly transportation option, visit rivers and forests and provide recreation opportunities for all regardless of their socioeconomic status.

The foundation’s initiative, Bowden says, encourages the formation of communities of interest. So this is what local advocates are doing with what they’re calling the Active Transportation Community of Interest.

If all goes as planned, not only will the collaboration help pick up steam in building a trail network, it might just generate a broader base of support that would fix what Bowden called “the graying of our trails.”

ForeverGreen Trails already attempts to link with like-minded organizations. Its board consists of members of the Foothills Rails-to-Trails Coalition, Mount Rainier National Park, Metro Parks Tacoma, Pierce County Parks, Key Peninsula Parks, Tacoma Community College and representatives from the cities of Tacoma, Sumner and Puyallup.

Each year since 2006, the group has held a conference to discuss progress toward the dream. Bowden, who recently accepted another term as president, says the conferences have grown from a grassroots, homey feel with about 20 people to the gathering of nearly 75 that visited the Pagoda on Oct. 29.

They celebrated the new JEB III Link added to the Foothills Trail in Puyallup earlier this year, work on the Cushman Trail, the new bikeway project and Prairie Line Trail section completed in Tacoma, the ongoing work on the Bud Blancher Trail in Eatonville, the new mountain bike park at Swan Creek Park and the Sumner Link Trail.

And they talked about their dreams — dozens of dreams. Moving a bridge from Puyallup to Buckley and pushing the Riverwalk all the way to Tacoma so people could someday travel all the way from Point Defiance to Enumclaw by trails. Kevin Bacher of Mount Rainier talked about being able to hike from your front door to the national park. Tony Tipton of Pierce County Parks talked about a trail following Tacoma Water’s Pipeline Road that could one day link South Hill and Tacoma.

They are big, exciting, expensive dreams that appear to be in good hands. But they are dreams many in the room would admit they aren’t likely to see become reality in their lifetimes.

They need help. They need younger advocates and stewards.

If only the membership of these volunteer groups looked more like the people using the trails.