What you can learn from a really long walk
The association that manages the West's premier national trail just paid $1.6 million to prevent a property owner from putting up a fence 150 miles shy of the Canadian border
In January 2015, the Pacific Crest Trail Association received a letter from the owner of a 402-acre plot of land near Stevens Pass, roughly 75 miles east of Seattle. The landowner, a family trust, held one of the few remaining privately held patches of the Pacific Crest Trail—a parcel that thousands of Washingtonians use each year to reach alpine wilderness areas and thru-hikers traverse on their way up to the northern terminus at Manning Park. The family trust, the letter said, wanted to sell.
It was good news for the PCTA, a nonprofit that’s been laboring to preserve and protect the 10 percent of the long-distance trail that, surprisingly, still sits in private hands. But the landowner, who remains anonymous, wanted to play hardball. The trust had divvied up the plot, which lies near the popular Stevens Pass ski area, into 16 different parcels, and according to a memo put together by the trust’s real estate adviser, the zoning meant a prospective buyer could build up to 748 dwellings in the pristine Cascade wilderness along the trail. Even more worrying, the letter made clear that the trust was willing to erect a fence across the section of the PCT that crossed its property, bisecting the trail 150 miles short of the border.
“For us, not only was it a big threat they could close the trail,” says Megan Wargo, director of land protection at the PCTA, “but we had done some fieldwork to look at what it would take to reroute the trail. It wasn’t just a simple loop around; it would have taken an extensive reroute to get around some serious topography. It would have had a significant impact on people’s ability to do a thru-hike.” Wargo estimates it would have taken a year to reroute the trail.
The PCT gets severed all the time, usually due to wildfires or the occasional newly discovered endangered species ecosystem on the route. But the threat to the Stevens Pass section of the trail underscores the little-known threat from private developers faced by the PCT and other long-distance trails.
While Congress designated the PCT as a national trail back in 1968, Wargo says, the feds, startlingly, still don’t own the whole route, despite years of programs aimed at purchasing and protecting private segments. In most cases, the government has made easement deals with the landowners, which grant hikers the right to tramp through the private lands on a small corridor of trail. But in the case of Stevens Pass and a few other areas, no such agreement had ever been inked. “This was certainly one of the biggest threats to the trail in Washington, in terms of closure,” Wargo says.
Luckily for Wargo and the PCTA, the Forest Service has a special program funded by the leases on offshore oil wells that is designed to purchase and protect wilderness. The PCTA worked with the landowner and the Forest Service to broker a plan to sell the land to the feds and make the parcel part of the nearby national forest. The purchase price: $1.6 million.
Unluckily for the PCTA, 2017 was a particularly bad year for wildfires, and the money the Forest Service had agreed to spend on the trail was diverted to the expensive business of putting out hundreds of thousands of acres of fire. The landowner didn’t want to wait, Wargo says, and wasn’t willing to agree to an easement deal that would allow hikers to pass through the property. “The landowner told us we couldn’t get an extension,” Wargo recalls. “We had until November 15 to close.”
At the last minute, the PCTA scraped together $400,000 from donors and the nonprofit Conservation Fund agreed to a $1.2 million loan. Last week, the PCTA finalized the deal and is now the proud owner of 402 acres of Washington wilderness. The group will hand the tract of land over to the Forest Service once the federal conservation funds become available again—something the service has assured the PCTA will happen. “I’m incredibly grateful for the partnership,” Wargo says.
Still, the victory ensures that just one chunk of the remaining privately held portions of the PCT will be protected. No law bars private property owners from developing land right up against the trail. In Southern California, Wargo says, that’s a real possibility.
In 2014, the Trust for Public Land and the USFS purchased 808 acres of the San Bernardino National Forest to protect the areas immediately surrounding the trail and to ensure that no development came within view of the trail. Today, Wargo says, several privately held portions of the trail are still tempting developers. “I think California is certainly an area where the PCT is racing against time before properties are developed,” she says.
The PCT is not the only national trail that needs protecting. The Conservation Fund, for its part, has also provided loans to protect trails and adjoining wilderness along the Appalachian Trail, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin, Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail in the Southeast, the North Country Scenic Trail in the Northeast, and more.
“Something I’ve learned in this work: All of the places that I love and visit and recreate on, people worked hard to protect those. Someone had to protect them. People before us had to preserve that land. And folks like the PCTA and us still are,” says Caitlin Guthrie of the Conservation Fund.
Whether negotiating with landowners who threaten to shut down the trail will convince other private owners to take up the same bare-knuckle tactics is a moot point for Wargo and the PCTA. They aim to work with any landowner willing to sell their property. That’s why the group has chosen to keep the family trust in the Stevens Pass deal anonymous—to avoid poisoning the well for any future deals. The PCTA, Wargo says, is willing to play the long game. “This trail is here for now and future generations,” she says.