What are Clark County’s most valuable public assets?
Maybe you would say Clark College and WSU Vancouver. Maybe it’s Esther Short Park and the Vancouver Farmers Market.
But we’d like to suggest a worthy nominee would be Clark County’s system of public trails. Two new reports from the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office offer evidence to support our assertion.
The first report looks at economic, environmental and social benefits of trails used for walking, running, hiking and bicycling. It says Washington residents visit these trails 38 to 42 days per year on average, generating economic benefits and health savings. The majority of these visits (56 percent) were spent walking on trails, another 19 percent were spent running on trails, and 11, 10, and 3 percent were spent biking, hiking, and backpacking respectively, according to the report, which was produced by the Seattle firm EcoNorthwest.
Using data collected in 2016, the report estimated 8.6 million trail trips in Clark County alone, generating $63.1 million in economic contributions and $22.5 million in health savings by discouraging a sedentary lifestyle. Those benefits include all the things your doctor tells you about: better heart and lung conditioning, a lower rate of cancer, and improved cognitive functioning.
The second report, also by EcoNorthwest, looks at the overall health benefits of contact with nature. It notes that in Washington, more than 63 percent of adults are obese or overweight, and 23 percent reported having some form of depression. “The solution might be as simple as stepping outside,” it said.
We are blessed in our region with a variety of trails. There are urban trails such as the Columbia River Renaissance Trail along the waterfront, or the Burnt Bridge Creek and Salmon Creek Greenway trails. There are rural trails, such as the one that runs from near Lucia Falls to Moulton Falls Regional Park. A segment of the Pacific Crest Trail cuts through Skamania County. Clark County’s 2015 plan for parks’ recreation and open space counts 46.2 miles of shared pathways, a distance that has since increased somewhat with the opening of Vancouver Waterfront Park and a 0.46-mile bicycle path opened last summer at the Port of Vancouver.
But as we celebrate our trails, we realize that more could and should be done. The 2015 county plan lists plans for more than 300 miles of trails in Clark County.
Developing this system will be a slow process, but we need to keep chipping away at it, even as we address our many other needs, such as homelessness or even the lack of sidewalks.
The long-term plan calls for prioritizing connections between new and existing trails and trail segments.
“While these trails support extensive use by residents and visitors, the overall network is fragmented and in need of considerable connections to close the gaps for enhanced value and function for Clark County residents and the contribution to associated economic effects of outdoor recreation,” the report says.
Some progress is being made. The Port of Vancouver has secured $488,000 to help connect the new section of the Vancouver Waterfront Trail across the Terminal 1 (currently home to WareHouse ’23 and the remnants of the old Red Lion Hotel at the Quay) to the Renaissance Trail.
We hope the two new state reports will help guide legislators and local officials in the next few years as they decide how to allocate precious parks and recreation dollars.
Even on these dreary January days, it is worth remembering that sometimes we are better off on foot.