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‘Special Places Don’t Stay Special on Accident’

By Amanda Christensen

In the early 1990s, Washington communities and activists had a vision of maintaining green wilderness and creating space where people could embrace the outdoors near urban cities like Seattle. “We’re all better and healthier when we’re connected to nature,” says Caroline Villanova, community and partnerships manager at Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust.

The Mountains to Sound Greenway National Heritage Area, a diverse landscape consisting of about 1.5 million acres spanning from Seattle to Ellensburg, Washington, has its roots in supporting public land acquisition, with connection to the regional tribes, the forest service, the Department of Natural Resources, and local cities and communities throughout the area. The Greenway incorporates three different watersheds including the Upper Yakima Basin, the Sammamish River Watershed, and a little bit of the Cedar River and Green River Watershed. The trust works with different public land managers in the area to “ensure that those lands can be stewarded and healthier for wildlife [and] for people,” says Villanova.

In 1998, the Mountains to Sound Greenway was the first interstate highway in the U.S. to be designated as a national scenic byway says Katie Egresi, communications manager at Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. “[It’s] a testament to all of the efforts to keep this landscape beautiful and natural so close to an urban area,” she notes. 

Come 2019, the area was officially designated as a National Heritage Area. The Greenway Trust offers volunteering and educational programs with activities like planting trees and habitat improvement projects. Monthly Saturday volunteer activities are available, and they offer small-scale custom private events and team-building activities for groups during the week. Villanova says experiences here are unique due to the area’s proximity to big urban environments, like Seattle, and accessibility to such individualized and mindful experiences in the wild. 

“There’s so much education that’s baked into this landscape, so much culture and history, that often gets [missed] unless you spend a long time here,” she says. With origins tied to the first Indigenous communities on the land, “There’s so much culture that takes a little bit of effort to learn, to recognize, to acknowledge—but it makes the time spent here all that more special.”

Sustainable tourism is at the forefront of the Greenway’s mission, ensuring that visitors understand that “You’re not just taking a walk in the park,” says Egresi. Visitors should be sure to do their research, come prepared, and understand the behaviors that help protect the land. Egresi says these include staying on trail, packing up trash, downloading a map before setting out, and being mindful and respectful of the land you’re on. 

“I think the average person doesn’t really think too much about what goes into managing these lands or building these trails or repairing these trails, and I feel like when you get a peek into this world, [you see that] there is a lot of public land in this state and very limited capacity and budget to maintain it,” Egresi says. “Every bathroom that’s destroyed or plants [that get] trampled, people cutting switchbacks on the trail, that all really adds up and just makes it that much harder to take care of what we have.” 

Whether it’s volunteering or just being a steward, there are myriad opportunities to visit, explore, team build, and play a role in ensuring the Greenway’s resources go further in maintaining the beauty and serenity of the Heritage Area.

“Special places don’t stay special on accident,” Villanova says.