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May 2000

The Prophet Of The PNT

With the fervor of a pulpit-pounding evangelist, Ron Strickland has wandered the land, preaching the gospel of the Pacific Northwest Trail he hoped to create.

The unbelievers celebrated after the 1980 publication of the Final National Scenic Trail Study Report. The document, a joint effort of the Forest Service and National Park Service, admitted the PNT crossed “some of America’s most breathtaking and varied landscapes,” but still concluded, “it is overwhelmingly evident that development of the trail…is neither feasible nor desirable.” Besides frightening bears and trampling tundra, the PNT would cost $39 to $106 million in taxpayer money, according to the study.

“But I’m not a person who takes ‘no’ for an answer,” says Strickland. He changed his strategy to follow the model of the Appalachian Trail, which was built from the ground up with grassroots support, rather than from the top down by congressional fiat. In hindsight, he admits that he made a big mistake trying to legislate the trail before building a constituency in support of it. In 1982, Strickland moved trailside to Skagit County and began to recruit new volunteers to build the trail “inch by inch, shovelful by shovelful.” Strickland maintained his travels, piecing together the route, proselytizing to land management officials, and building a flock of trail maintainers. In 1983, he made his own continuous end-to-end hike with Ted Hitzroth, a cartographer who would devote endless hours to mapping the trail for Strickland’s guidebooks. PNT adherents stuck by Strickland’s vision, negotiating quietly with landowners for easements, and building and hiking even without federal recognition. Harvey Manning, whose early jest changed Strickland’s life, supported the trail from the sidelines. “I kept telling Ron not to fret about National Scenic Trail status, to forget it,” he recalls. “The trail was happening without it.”

And it still is, step by blistered step. North Cascades and Olympic National Parks, once opposed, now “endorse the trail in principle,” largely because the Pacific Northwest Trail Association is willing to work with them regarding route location and because it helps the parks get more trail volunteers. Some Forest Service districts are actively cooperating with the PNTA’s efforts, also to influence where the route is sited. At the end of 1999, for example, the Forest Service persuaded the PNTA to abandon the Swift Creek Trail (and its idea for a cable car crossing the creek) because grizzlies might someday den in this relatively pristine valley. The Mountaineers and certain old-guard conservation forces, however, remain as entrenched as ever, still fearing for grizzlies, the overuse of fragile alpine areas, and the waste of trail maintenance monies.

Despite the obstacles, Strickland’s decades of nurturing have sprouted a dedicated PNTA. A few years ago, his evangelizing during an afternoon of Audubon Society birdwatching converted Joan Melcher. She quickly initiated her husband, Duane, a retired commercial flower-grower who now serves as chair of the PNTA. This energetic couple, who may never spend a night on the ground, nevertheless speak in reverential tones about “the Power of the Trail.” They devote their weekends to leading work parties, carving and clearing the dream so that others may hike it. The Melchers, in turn, won over Keith McGee, a recently retired Ford Motor Company executive who arranged a $250,000 grant from Ford and the Northwest Ford Dealers Association. This grant allowed the PNTA to hire a fireball of energy named Jeri Krampetz. From her post as director of operations, she’s already brought new levels of strategic vision, financing, and recruiting to the great aspiration of a rogue trail-lover. The Melchers, Krampetz, and a great many others are finding that creativity, cooperation, and volunteerism can accomplish cheaply what the government’s 1980 report had claimed would cost vast amounts of taxpayer money.

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