Life on the Rocks: A rough landing for the Multi-modal Trail idea

By Steve Ulvi,

Journal contributor

I have always been a trail guy. I have helped route and construct many trails here. We are blessed with a great trail network on public recreational lands as well as some generous, but narrow, connecting easements on private land. Open to all for rejuvenation. Most often no downside and little controversy. But not all trail ideas promise the greatest public good.

I worked on ranches in Oregon but have never been a farmer. We know that early islanders fenced, plowed, seeded, hayed, battled bunny scourges, endured tough winters and proudly raised families in the San Juan Valley. Today Zylstra Preserve is a bucolic, living “freezeframe” of island history because of the hard work and transformation of pastoralist farming. Multi-generational families still live along much of the busy valley roadway from town.

The quiet blooming of “No Trail!” signs on private land – acreage necessary for this multi-modal trail idea – represents a significant rejection. I have asked questions through the new County Portal and by email about the few “knowns” in order to tease out some of the problematic or opportunistic “unknowns.”

Perhaps town and county leaders, good people all, were somehow, someway, not imagining significant opposition to wide easements for a parallel paved corridor with road crossings, speeding riders and chatty clots of walkers affecting traffic, cows, sheep and longstanding island values.

The County appears to be gathering itself as blowback and rumors mount stemming from the skimpy information initially reported in January. Supporters are choosing to keep mum. The Land Bank, already grappling to manage the exigencies of Zylstra Preserve, was unaware of the grant. The $5.28 million acquired by Rep. Larsen is only a drop in the waterfall of funds in the 2023 Omnibus Bill and it goes to the WA DOT for administration. These earmarked funds are specific to this multi-modal trail and will cover approved project costs submitted by the County for reimbursement.

This Big Idea is justified by dreamy planner-speak on the website; improved road safety, public health, “connectedness” and recreational opportunities. Of course, there is also a nod to increasing the hollow revenues from the enormous bulge of summer tourism to which our struggling ex-fishing town is addicted. Sadly, this feels like a “build it and they will come” scheme air-dropped from on high with no run-up. As such it is an affront to common sense, pastoral scenery and rural island culture.

The spacious Linde Park sports complex and an extended trail into Beaverton Marsh are already safe town portals to family outdoor activities and unhurried relaxation. At some point, when the public is allowed to participate, there will be enough expertise and interest to come up with achievable alternative designs and/or alignments. Unholstering eminent domain for this public purpose would be disastrous. In the end, a workable solution may well be found in widening and slowing San Juan Valley Road within the existing easement.