Team to plan trail maintenance in Morning Star conservation area

EVERETT — A team has formed to start drafting a trails plan for the state’s largest natural resources conservation area.

The state Department of Natural Resources is working on a plan for maintaining, updating and possibly expanding trails in the Morning Star Natural Resources Conservation Area. The plan would guide trail work for the next 10 to 15 years. Trails to Gothic Basin, Ashland Lakes and the Walt Bailey area are among those affected.

Morning Star, located north of Index and Gold Bar and southeast of Granite Falls, is the largest of 36 conservation areas in the state and the only one in Snohomish County. Encompassing more than 36,000 acres, it protects unique ecosystems in the middle and high elevations around Spada Lake. Thousands of visitors hike the trails and camp in the backcountry there every year.

“This area is one of the wettest in the North Cascade Mountains, and because of the high precipitation and cool temperatures, we get subalpine plant communities that occur at unusually low elevations,” said David Way, recreation manager for Morning Star and project manager for the trails plan.

Subalpine lakes, meadows and wetlands are home to rare native plant and animal species. They include marbled murrelet, northern spotted owl, Pacific fisher, bull trout and six types of sensitive or threatened plants.

This winter, a 15-member committee was put together with volunteers and representatives from agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and state Department of Fish and Wildlife to start working on the trails plan. The goal is to create a document that prioritizes work so that ecosystems are protected and people can continue to enjoy the wilderness. The trick is figuring out where to focus limited resources, Way said.

There are bridges that need replacing and parts of trails that need to be shored up. There also are paths that have been created over time by hikers but are not designated as official trails. Planners need to decide whether to formally add those to the system, which meanders an estimated 40 miles through the conservation area.

“The priority is really to look at the trail system that we have and focus our efforts on restoring areas that are already impacted by the use out there,” Way said. “It’s an aging trail network where bridges and other things need to be replaced, and we’ve got limited funds and resources available to do that work.”

Once a draft of the plan is written, it will be available for public review before being finalized, Way said. That’s likely more than a year out.

Committee meetings to work on the plan are open to the public but are not meant for taking extensive comments on the plan, Way said. A meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Snohomish County Administration Building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave.

Nearly 150 people responded to a survey on trail planning in the Morning Star conservation area earlier this winter.

According to the survey results, more than 90 percent of people who visit the conservation area go there to hike and more than 70 percent have gone backcountry camping there. The most used trails by the survey group were Weeden Creek to Gothic Basin, Walt Bailey to Cutthroat Lakes, and Sunrise Mine to Vesper Lake.

About half of the hikers felt that the trails, trailheads and campsites were sufficiently maintained but few felt they were “very well” maintained. They were split on which projects are most pressing. Among the options was rebuilding bridges to access Boulder and Twin Falls lakes and over other streams near Boulder and Greider lakes. Another possible project is rebuilding a loop trail around Upper Ashland Lake, which would require a new bridge and several boardwalk sections.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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