The idea that the longest journey begins with a single step seems an appropriate summation of the vision being espoused by the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. After all, developing a vast hiking loop around the Gorge might seem like an unattainable dream — but you never know until you try.
With that in mind, the environmental group recently shared its vision for "Gorge Towns to Trails" with the Chinook Trail Association. The Chinook Trail Association would like to create a vast 300-mile hiking loop around the Gorge, and Friends of the Columbia Gorge would like to link trails in the area with riverfront towns. As quoted by Columbian reporter Stevie Mathieu, project manager Renee Tkach said a system of trails that connect to towns would provide "not a backcountry experience, (but) more of a front country experience."
For example, the groups are focusing on developing a new hiking path that would connect a portion of the Chinook Trail in Washougal with the Pacific Crest Trail as it passes through Stevenson. Tkach said about 95 percent of the land needed for that connection already is publicly owned, making the plan seem not so far-fetched. Friends of the Columbia Gorge also is focusing on connecting the town of Lyle with a hiking area, and linking Hood River to The Dalles by trail on the Oregon side of the river.
For more than two decades, the Chinook Trail Association has advocated for a hiking loop that would extend east from Vancouver Lake to the Highway 97 bridge near Biggs, Ore. But, as with any pie-in-the-sky notion that could involve land purchases and easements, the idea is subject to political wrangling and debate.
At the heart of the questions is how the areas surrounding the Gorge hope to position themselves for economic recovery. Those areas, traditionally reliant upon the timber industry as an economic engine, have been hit particularly hard through the Great Recession. In Skamania County, for example, which borders Clark County to the east, the unemployment rate spiked at over 15 percent in 2010; in August 2013, it stood at 8.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The vision of "Gorge Towns to Trails" is to enhance the region's accessibility to hiking while turning outdoors recreation into a tourism industry, and Tkach pointed out that National Geographic magazine a few years ago ranked the Gorge as the sixth-best place to visit in the world. "We're on the map," she said. "Visitors are coming, and they're looking for these experiences."
Along those lines, Friends of the Columbia Gorge has launched a "Play and Stay" campaign encouraging hikers to turn a day trip into an overnight vacation in the Gorge. Yet the plan points out the conundrum facing municipal governments these days. While many areas focus on developing and attracting tourism, a strong economy is reliant upon a broad-based foundation that includes manufacturing and commerce, and that will be crucial to the recovery of the counties along the Gorge. Not every region can build its economy on making play dates with people from across the country.
Friends of the Columbia Gorge, for now, is doing its part in its area of expertise. "This isn't something that's going to happen in the next five, 10 years. This is a long-term vision," Tkach said. "A big vision takes lots of work, lots of patience, but it leaves an amazing legacy behind."
And any amazing legacy begins with a single step.