Trail gets ready for hooves

Improvement for horses will connect park with county fairgrounds

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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It’s a short ride of one-half mile — and a long wait of several decades — from the western entrance to Fairgrounds Community Park to the Clark County Fairgrounds themselves.

“It is really exciting to see this connection coming in here. People have had this vision for I don’t know how long — 20, 30 years,” said Norm Welsh of the Clark County Executive Horse Council.

A shared equestrian-pedestrian trail along the north side of Fairgrounds Community Park, complete with a connection linking the park to the fairgrounds, has long been part of the approved master plan for the area. That plan was finalized in 2005, and it ran smack into environmental and monetary realities that probably will prevent all of it from ever being fully built out. While a first phase was completed in 2009, bringing walking trails, sports courts, benches, a playground and more to 30 acres on the east side of the park, the elaborate sports complex envisioned for the west side seems impossible, given the landscape’s steep slopes and federally protected wetlands.

What’s moving ahead now are the lowest-impact and least costly amenities — trails. In this time of crunched budgets, Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation has been pleased to enlist a host of community volunteers and donated resources to start work on the shared pathway along the northern border of the park. From there it bends to the north, meanders through a copse of trees and emerges on the southern edge of the fairgrounds. (It won’t connect with those 30 developed acres to the east, where horses are not allowed).

“This is part of a much bigger trail vision to connect our regional parks. It’s an incremental closing of one gap in the system,” said Lisa Goorjian, a landscape architect with Vancouver-Clark parks. In the long run, Goorjian said, this trail will run all the way from the Columbia River on the west to the Mount Vista area, near the campus of Washington State University Vancouver, on the east. That connection will go through Whipple Creek Park and Fairgrounds Community Park and will link to the Fairgrounds themselves.

A team from AmeriCorps, the national service agency, plus Clark County Public Works is leading the way. This month, crews have been working with shovels, chain saws and tender loving care to clear a path that’s four feet wide, 12 feet tall, no steeper than 10 percent elevation at any spot, and sloping a little bit to let rain run off and keep erosion from undermining the path.

That’s what you learn to do when you go to the Washington Trails Association’s Trail Skills College, according to Brian Zahora, a program coordinator for the parks department. Trail Skills College entails three days of lectures, workshops and hands-on experience building trails. It was held in April in Cascade Locks, Ore.

“It’s a great time, and you really learn the finer points,” said Dan Allen, the AmeriCorps team leader.

Good to the landscape

AmeriCorps volunteer Tim Ernst found himself more or less buried in greenery as he worked those finer points. He was lovingly excavating forest-floor ferns, carefully digging them out of the path of the trail, lugging them a few feet over, and transplanting them back into the landscape.

“I’ve done, like, 100 already,” he said from behind a big smile and some wicked-cool sunglasses. “Preserving scenic integrity. Being good to the landscape.”

After AmeriCorps finishes the basic clearing, more volunteers will be enlisted to work alongside Vancouver-Clark Parks and Clark County Public Works to finish the soft-surface trail. If lots of help turns up, it’s possible the trail will be ready for use in about one month.

Expect the diverse members of the Horse Council, a local umbrella organization of all things equine, to play a big role.

“This is our fourth effort with the Horse Council,” said Goorjian. “For the past three years, they have been a critical partner in making improvements in Whipple Creek. We would not be able to do this without their help.”

Why is a connection between the northern Fairgrounds Community Park trail and the fairgrounds themselves a big deal for horse riders? Equine events at the fairgrounds don’t keep horses and riders tied up all day long, Welsh pointed out; they have plenty of down time to go exploring.

“When this is all done, they’ll be able to connect with five more miles of trails,” he said.