Restoring trail access in a Washington state National Forest

Windy Point Overlook in Whistler Canyon, Washington. Courtesy USFS.

 Tucked up along the Canadian border, on Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest land, you’ll find one of the largest bands of big horned sheep in Washington state. To reach this area, known locally as the Mount Hull block, the historic Whistler Canyon trail once provided convenient access. However, trail users lost access three years ago after a quarry was created nearby. Recreationists not only lost access to the Mount Hull block, but also to this critical access point for the newly designated Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail.

This summer, thanks to a group of horse riders and at-risk kids who will build a new trailhead, there’s new hope of accessing this special land. But the story of getting to this point involves a little more than muscle and sweat.

The Okanogan Valley Chapter of Back Country Horsemen of Washington (BCHW) realized that the only way to restore access to this cherished land was through the creation of a new trailhead, which would require partnerships and funding.

“The Mount Hull block is a premier outdoor recreation area for equestrians, hunters, hikers, mountain bikers, rock climbers and cross-country skiers,” said Trygve Culp, director of the Okanogan Valley Chapter of BCHW. Culp explained that the Mount Hull area is also known as a microcosm of the Okanogan — encompassing lower elevation desert, pine shrub-steppe, interior conifer and sub-alpine forest ecosystems.

Culp’s group partnered with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest to acquire funds for the government purchase of property along a scenic Washington highway for the new Whistler Canyon trailhead. 

Okanogan County stepped up to preserve the Whistler Canyon trail by purchasing private lands off of Highway 97 that can serve as the location of a new trailhead. The County is holding those lands until federal funds can be found to convey them to the USFS. This represents a strong commitment by the County to preserve public lands for recreational purposes and shows the importance of public to recreation in Okanogan County.

The local Ranger District recommended that the property purchase include a grant proposal for federal Land and Water Conservation (LWCF) funding, which provides matching grants to states and local governments for the development of public outdoor recreation areas and facilities.

To increase their odds of receiving the LWCF funding, the Ranger District recommended that BCHW find a local nonprofit organization to team up with to raise awareness and funding for the trail building project.

Since the Whistler Canyon trail is a critical access point for the newly designated Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail — a 1,200 mile trail that traverses the northern portions of Washington, Idaho and Montana — BCHW approached the nonprofit, Pacific Northwest Trail Association. The association offered their Service-Knowledge-Youth (SKY) programs for help with trail building.

The Nursery in Whistler Canyon Trailhead, Washington. Photo by Ted Murray.SKY provides underserved youth in the Pacific Northwest with a priceless outdoors-based service learning experience. The youth spend up to 8 weeks working on trail maintenance and construction in the backcountry, while receiving valuable job training and learning low impact land use and conservation stewardship skills.

BCHW also worked with Okanogan County on a grant submission to the 2010 Secure Rural Schools Act Title II funds and was successfully awarded the grant by a 15-member Wenatchee Okanogan Resource Advisory Committee (RAC) this year. The Wilderness Society sits this committee, which ranges in membership from conservation organizations to county commissioners.

The awarded RAC funding will launch the first phase of trailhead development just off of Highway 97.

“We are pleased that the Secure Rural Schools funds will be used to provide critical and easy access to such a special recreation destination in Washington State and that youth in Okanogan County continue to be given the opportunity to be part of maintaining this and other Forest Service trails in the region,” said Cynthia Wilkerson, TWS Washington Program Manager and member of the Resource Advisory Committee.

With the initial funding in place, Back Country Horsemen of Washington and the SKY program will spend the summers of 2009 and 2010 building the trailhead and conducting trail maintenance to restore access to the historic route to Mount Hull.

The Whistler Canyon trail project is championed by several different partners and supported by a combination of public and private funding as summarized below.


Backcountry Horsemen of Washington Okanogan Valley Chapter
A non-profit organization of horse riders and packers dedicated to ensuring the rights to recreation with horses and mules on public lands and demonstrating that horsemen are citizens concerned about protecting the environment and sustaining equilibrium for the community and backcountry. This group has rallied for the overall Whistler Canyon project and raised over $33,000 as a cost-share for the land acquisition costs.

United States Forest Service, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Tonasket Ranger District
The Tonasket Ranger district is the furthest northeast corner of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The Forest Service is working to acquire the private lands along Highway 97 that will be home to the trailhead.

Okanogan County
Located in north-central Washington, Okanogan County is the largest county in the state. The County purchased the lands which are the site of the planned trailhead off of Highway 97.

Tonasket SKY (Service Knowledge Youth) Program
A school-to-work readiness, service-learning program for low-income, at-risk youth in Okanogan County.

Current and Potential Funding Sources

Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF):
This is a fund within the U.S. federal budget that provides money to federal, state and local governments to purchase land, water and wetlands from willing sellers and for the benefit of all Americans. There is a current request for $250,000 to purchase the land for the trailhead.

Backcountry Horsemen of Washington — Okanogan Valley Chapter
This local chapter of the state and national organization has raised over $33,000 as a match for the LWCF request.

Resource Advisory Committee (RACs)
RACs are established by the Secure Rural School and Community Self-Determination Act. Funds are distributed to counties based on the amount of federal public lands they contain. RAC funding is to be used for additional investments in, and creating additional employment opportunities through, projects that improve the maintenance of existing infrastructure, implementing stewardship objectives that enhance forest ecosystems, and restoring and improving land health and water quality. The Wenatchee-Okanogan RAC funds have gone to support the Tonasket SKY trail work as well as the development of the trailhead off of Highway 97.

Windy Point Overlook in Whistler Canyon, Washington. Courtesy USFS.
The Nursery in Whistler Canyon Trailhead, Washington. Photo by Ted Murray.