Lake Serene, in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, offers a short hike to a waterfall and a longer hike to an alpine lake. The “Economic, Environmental, Social Benefits of Recreational Trails in Washington State” study looked at these trails. (U.S. Forest Service)

Lake Serene, in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, offers a short hike to a waterfall and a longer hike to an alpine lake. The “Economic, Environmental, Social Benefits of Recreational Trails in Washington State” study looked at these trails. (U.S. Forest Service)

New study: State’s trails are more than worth the investment

Research shows that our state trails boost the economy and improve hikers’ physical and mental health.

  • Sunday, February 23, 2020 8:32am
  • Life

By Jessi Loerch / Washington Trails Association

Hikers have long known that time spent on trail is good for them. It’s great exercise, it boosts mental health and it’s a way to connect with the people you love.

A new study from 2019 shows that hiking is not only good for your health, it’s also good for local economies across the state.

“This study proves that getting out in nature is a more than a hobby,” said Jill Simmons, WTA’s chief executive officer. “It is good for our minds and bodies. And when you consider the economic and health benefits, it is clear we need to invest more in our trails and public lands.”

Washington Trails Association has been backing the study for years, encouraging the Legislature to fund the study during the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions.

“We’ve known for a long time that outdoor recreation is a huge contributor to the economy,” said Andrea Imler, WTA’s advocacy director. “But the piece we were missing was to bring that information down even closer to trails specifically. This study fills that gap. Having data from a statistically valid study really shows that trails are a must-have, not just a nice to have.”

Adam Domanski, senior economist at ECONorthwest, worked on the study. He says the study measured the value of non-motorized trails in Washington state on a broad scale, including benefits to users as well as businesses and communities.

“The study is really a decision tool,” Domanski said. “This is a way for state and regional decision makers to make better-informed decisions on where to spend that next dollar.”

We need trails

Eighty-four percent of Washington residents enjoy some sort of non-motorized outdoor recreation. A lot of that recreation is on trails — and more hikers are hitting the trails each year.

But the trail system is strained. Despite the impressive economic and health benefits trails already show, with more investment, trails could be doing even more to help our state.

Domanski says this study can help decision makers understand that investing in trails is worth the cost. For instance, the study found that $1 spent on trails saved $2.94 in health-care costs.

Trails that are close to where we live are particularly important. Having a trail nearby increases how often we get out. The study found that every additional trailhead in a county meant a 0.6% increase in trail use. And that effect still held true even when accounting for demographics such as income, education and age.

To better understand the benefit of trails, the researchers used two trails as case studies: the Centennial Trail in Spokane County and Lake Serene on Highway 2 west of Stevens Pass. The researchers found that the Centennial Trail, which is nearly 40 miles long, supports 1.5 million walking and biking trips each year. The trail contributes $1.7 million to the area annually in addition to $1.6 million in health savings.

When trails become inaccessible, health and economic benefits are reduced both for would-be visitors and local communities.

This was the case at Lake Serene, which offers a short hike to a waterfall and a longer hike to an alpine lake. The trail was closed for nearby logging activities from August 2017 to September 2018. During that time, more than 39,000 potential hikers had to go somewhere else or forgo a hike, according to a model developed by the University of Washington.

“We know that trails provide a lot of benefits. People are healthier when they use trails, trails are good for local businesses and trails are better for the environment,” said Kaleen Cottingham, director of the state Recreation and Conservation Office, which released the report. “It just makes sense that state and local leaders should invest in this valuable commodity. Not only will people benefit, but so will the state overall.”

Health benefits

It’s probably obvious that hiking is good for you physically. Walking has long been encouraged as effective exercise. Time on trail offers substantial mental health benefits as well.

“A study among Washington adults found that those who spent more time outdoors reported less depression, and another study of Washington residents found that more forests were associated with fewer days of mental health complaints,” the report said.

WTA’s community knows that. We often hear stories from hikers about how they use trails to improve their mental or physical health — or to recover from particularly hard times in their lives.

Joe Hendricks, a hiker, trip reporter and WTA volunteer, is one such hiker. Joe and his wife, Heidi, were both diagnosed with cancer within three months of each other in 2008. They hiked trails as a way to rejuvenate during treatment.

Heidi, sadly, died several years later. For Joe, getting back on trail was hard, but it became an important part of his healing.

“After Heidi’s death, I almost stopped hiking altogether,” Joe Hendricks said. “A week after she died I tried the Upper Dungeness River Trail and turned back in despair. … The hikes got easier over time, but I still notice tears when hiking one of her favorite trails today.”

Hendricks encourages others who are dealing with illness or grief to get outside.

The report backs up what Joe knows, going so far as to suggest trails as a health intervention.

What’s next?

The study offers a number of recommendations, and we’ll be talking with lawmakers and land managers about ways to make those suggestions a reality. We’re excited to see how this study can help build a stronger trail system to benefit all of Washington.

“This study shows that the benefits of trails are staggering,” WTA advocacy direcgtor Imler said. “There is demand for trails, and this study shows that there’s unmet need. Trails are more than worth the investment they require.”

More about the study

The new study, “Economic, Environmental, & Social Benefits of Recreational Trails in Washington State,” was released by the Washington Recreation and Conservation Office. The study was conducted by ECONorthwest in collaboration with Washington Trails Association and Washington Bikes. The study is in two parts: an economic analysis of the benefit of trails and a literature review of the health benefits of time on trail and in nature. See the full study at bit.ly/trails_study.

An interactive website

To make the study even more powerful for decision makers on a local level, this website shows the economic and health benefits of trails broken down by county and by legislative district: econw.shinyapps.io/econ_wa_rec_trails.

Talk to us

More in Life

Lemon Mascarpone Layer Cake, photographed Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
These 4 recipes will prevent the heartbreak of blah desserts

Each of them is decadent and well worth the calories, and they’ll all become your new favorites.

Snohomish Historical Preservation Commission member Fred Cruger with his dog, Duffy, in Arlington along one of the history walk sections at Centennial Trail. The event will be up through September. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Discover local history as you walk the Centennial Trail

Take a smartphone quiz as you stroll the trail. If you answer every question correctly, you’ll win a prize.

Rosemary Fish Fillets with Lemon Garlic Pasta. (Linda Gassenheimer/TNS)
Lemon, garlic sauce, rosemary make flavorful fish dish

This recipe calls for mahi-mahi, but any type of firm white fish will work — snapper, tilapia or cod.

A course of traffic-cone slaloms is one way to help teens improve their driving skills. (Jennifer Bardsley)
Her teen is putting pedal to the metal for accident avoidance

She signed the new driver up for an advanced collision avoidance class taught by Defensive Driving School.

Seattle filmmaker ‘would have been honored’ by being at Emmys

Lynn Shelton, who died in May, was nominated for directing and producing Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere.”

Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, now a symbol of peace and reunification. (Rick Steves’ Europe)
Rick Steves: Today’s Berlin is freedom’s victory dance

Checkpoint Charlie is now a capitalist sideshow. You’ll be sold fake bits of the wall, WWII gas masks and DDR medals.

We need to make suicide prevention a public health priority

The pandemic has impacted our mental well-being. Be on the lookout for suicidal behavior.

2020 Jeep Renegade adds more features for lower trim levels

All models have a new telematics unit, and a 9-speaker Kenwood premium audio system is available.

Blue leadwort is a low-growing perennial that acts as a colorful groundcover for the garden. (Getty Images)
A few perennial gems to help brighten up the fall garden

He can’t help but find new treasures to plant each time he visits the nursery. Here are four he added recently.

Most Read