The Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust was established by Jim Ellis, Brian Boyle, and Ted Thomsen in 1991 to develop a greenway along Interstate 90 from Puget Sound to the Cascade Mountains -- an idea first put forward by Harvey Manning, Jack Hornung, and others in the Issaquah Alps Trails Club. In its three-plus decades, the Greenway Trust has brought together property owners, government agencies, businesses, donors, and volunteers to preserve open space and viewsheds and develop recreational facilities along Interstate 90 to ensure residents of the Seattle metropolitan area have access to outdoor recreation and to preserve the integrity of the corridor's smaller towns so they are not engulfed by sprawling suburban growth. The Greenway Trust has utilized land exchanges, purchases and transfers of development rights, facilitation of land acquisitions, public education, and thousands of hours of volunteer labor to realize the open-space plan.
Issaquah Club Hatches Idea
In the 1980s, the Puget Sound region experienced an explosion of growth after enduring economic doldrums in the 1970s. In the Cascade foothills along Interstate 90, the expansion of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge and the freeway to six lanes reduced travel time between Seattle and eastern King County by half and the developed area on the Sammamish Plateau doubled. Region-wide the tree-covered area would decrease by 1 million acres between 1972 and 1996. Residents looked for ways to protect the small towns and forests from sprawling development.
Around the same time, the greenways movement gained momentum across the United States. Charles Little's influential book, Greenways for America, described the concept as "linear parks, open spaces, and protected natural areas in cities, suburbs, or the countryside" (Little, 4). He cited examples across the country, including the Mid-Peninsula Region Open Space District in California and the Willamette Valley Greenway in Oregon.
The Issaquah Alps Trail Club was formed in 1979 to preserve open space in the foothills around Issaquah and develop hiking trails. Harvey Manning (1925-2006), instrumental in its founding, wrote numerous hiking books that drew attention, and hikers, to the hills. In 1989, at the request of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Commission, club member Jack Hornung (1932-2005), a former city planner, wrote a formal proposal for a greenway, "'Wilderness on the Metro:' A Proposed Mid-King County Natural and Recreational Corridor for Man and Beast." In it, he sounded an alarm:
So here, before the Emerald City becomes another Asphalt City, is a great opportunity to create not only a refuge for man and beast but a great green buffer which along with other areas of open space, will help to separate and humanize the onslaught of growth. And time is of the essence -- two years perhaps, certainly five years, and it will be too late ("Wilderness on the Metro").
To promote the greenway concept, the trail club led 85 people on a five-day trek from Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle in July 1990. The trek embodied a strategy Greenway Trust would use over the next three decades: engage grassroots supporters, but also "grass tops" -- local civic leaders, elected officials, public agency and private land management staff members, and company officials who could influence policy and budget decisions directly. Among the trek participants were Gary Locke (b. 1950), then a state legislator; Ron Sims (b. 1948), King County Executive; and Brian Boyle (b.1941), state Commissioner of Public Lands. They led groups of hikers on Tiger, Squak, and Cougar mountains.
Ellis at the Helm
Manning, Hornung, and others at the trail club knew they needed someone with more organizing and project-management experience to lead the effort. They looked to Jim Ellis (1921-2019), known for his leadership of the Forward Thrust conservation measures in the 1960s and 1970s. Ellis at first balked at taking on the leadership role, but Marty Rosen, Trust for Public Land board president and Ellis's good friend, helped convince him to take the helm as board president. A likely influence on his decision related to the death of his brother, Robert, in World War II. They had built a cabin near the Raging River before the war, and Ellis chose conservation work as a way to make the most of his (spared) life and to honor his brother.
Beyond his stature and connection to the Snoqualmie Valley, Ellis brought tangible skills to the trust. Ken Konigsmark, who served as the Boeing-loaned executive for 10 years, believes Ellis's effectiveness stemmed from several practices. First, he brought everyone involved in an issue to the table, even if they didn't agree on much. He knew the importance of "breaking bread" together -- by sharing a meal at each of the Trust's board meetings, people had a chance to get to know each other. Second, at the organizational level he always believed they should under-promise and over-deliver. Third, Ellis shared credit and recognition with everyone involved in a project so they felt like part of the larger movement. Nancy Keith, who served as the trust's executive director from 1993 until 2007, credits Ellis with carrying the project forward with his vision:
"I had never known someone who could vividly picture the future in such detail. He said, 'But, Nancy, look 20 or 30 years out! A million more people will live here. If we can set aside most of the farm and forest land we see today along I-90, the Greenway will be huge in the midst of so much urbanization. It will be the lungs and quiet place in nature the way Central Park is for the millions of people in New York City, only much bigger, big enough to protect clean air and water and wildlife, close enough to give people a way to leave the city behind'" (Keith interview).
The Trust for Public Land paid for several years of office space in Smith Tower in Seattle and loaned an employee, Donna McBain, to serve as the first executive director. Ellis joined with Brian Boyle and Ted Thomsen, a member of the Issaquah Alps Trail Club, to incorporate the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust in 1991.
The trust's technical advisory committee led the public outreach process to identify the projects that would be part of the greenway. Working with an overarching set of principles -- including preserving open space for recreation, protecting working forests to ensure the area's economic viability while also protecting timberlands as habitat for wildlife, preventing the chain of small towns along the corridor from becoming a continuous strip of suburban sprawl, and preserving regional history through preservation projects -- the staff and committee met with community members and organizations to identify potential projects. Nancy Keith described them as "a smorgasbord of possibilities for local communities, agencies and advocates to pursue" and that the Greenway Trust could facilitate and support.
Participants worked with the landscape architects at Jones and Jones, a Seattle architecture firm, to develop a concept map. Published in 1993, it presented the goals of the greenway in a visual format and highlighted land and resources, including historical sites, to be protected and recreational facilities to be developed, all along the route from Puget Sound to the Cascades (originally to the crest, but later extended into Kittitas County). The map successfully communicated the Greenway Trust's mission and garnered public support for the plan.
The strategy addressed multiple challenges involved with protecting an enormous area with a wide diversity of stakeholders. One of the primary issues was the vast acreage involved, much of it privately owned and in commercial forestry. It was not feasible or even desirable for public agencies to purchase all of the land. Given the economic importance of logging -- both for employment and for the natural resources needed for construction and other wood products -- the Greenway Trust joined with others to advocate for changes to timber harvesting practices to reduce the visible and environmental impact of logging. The Greenway Trust also supported land exchanges and purchases to resolve the checkerboard ownership issue created by land grants to the Northern Pacific Railway in alternating sections that were later sold to timber companies. The disjointed ownership made it difficult for public agencies to manage the land effectively and complicated timber companies' access to their land.
At times the only viable option to protect open space has been the purchase of land. The Greenway Trust has not made these purchases, instead serving as a facilitator, finding willing sellers and buyers to help protect key parcels of land, and using a wide variety of public and private funding sources.
Another element of the Greenway Trust's work has been organizing volunteers and collaborating with outdoor organizations such as the Washington Trails Association to carry out projects such as trail improvements, logging road replantings, and stream bed restorations. Between 1995 and 2001, volunteers helped remove 21 miles of abandoned logging roads.
Building the Greenway
These strategies were put to work across a broad range of projects. The first public event was a tree planting project in Seattle sponsored by Weyerhaeuser and Seattle Rotary in 1993. Volunteers planted 560 trees on the northwest slope of Beacon Hill, in Dr. José Rizal Park. The event garnered attention in the urban area that would most benefit from having the greenway nearby.
The next year, the Trust for Public Land used funds from a Bullitt Foundation grant to purchase 1,800 acres from Weyerhaeuser on Rattlesnake Mountain near North Bend. King County and the State of Washington then purchased the land from the Trust for Public Land, once the funding could be allocated. Not long after the acquisition, the Greenway Trust worked with the Seattle Water Department (later part of Seattle Public Utilities) and volunteers to replace the very steep trail up the mountain from Rattlesnake Lake.
In May 1994, Gary Locke, King County Executive and a Greenway Trust board member, announced a "great compromise" on a deal that allowed Port Blakely Communities to increase the density of residential and commercial development on Grand Ridge, just above Issaquah, in exchange for a donation of four acres of land for each acre of developed land. More than 1,000 acres of public open space were conserved. Like several deals in the greenway, the Grand Ridge arrangement took something the property owner already had a right to do, in this case develop one home per five acres, and altered the terms in exchange for public open space preservation. The deal was not without detractors. A board member resigned from the Issaquah Alps Trail Club because of its support for the proposal. According to trail club member Ralph Owen, "Some [existing] residents of Grand Ridge felt betrayed by the club" (Owen, 33).
In 1994 the cities of Snoqualmie and North Bend, and King County, with assistance from the Trust for Public Lands, acquired nearly 400 acres of historic Meadowbrook Farm, which was located on a meadow maintained by ancestors of the Snoqualmie Tribe. Keeping the farm as open space, along with the later acquisition of Tollgate Farm, prevented sprawl from filling the area between North Bend and Snoqualmie, preserving their small-town characters.
In the early 1990s, the Sierra Club, Weyerhaeuser, and King County made a deal with the Forest Service to exchange 7,000 acres of old-growth forest on Huckleberry Mountain in the White River watershed for 32,000 acres of cutover Weyerhaeuser timberland in the greenway. When the land deal was finalized in 1996, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and the Pilchuck Audubon Society filed a suit in federal court over concerns about the public benefits and potential impacts on treaty-reserved rights. The Greenway Trust joined the Sierra Club in articulating the environmental and public benefits to the public and the land swap was approved.
In the late 1990s, several large parcels were added to public lands. In 1997 the state acquired 6,200 acres in the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River Valley in a land exchange with Champion Timber Company. This acquisition was part of a long effort to restore the river basin's environmental health, which had been damaged by illegal dumping and misuse. Over time, volunteer and agency projects removed 20 illegal river access sites, built trails, and removed garbage, making the area popular for sustainable recreation.
Another 1,100 acres on Rattlesnake Mountain came into public ownership in 1997, thanks to the federal Forestry Legacy Fund. This program targeted lands close to urban areas that could be kept as working forests. Several times, the program was targeted by Congress for cuts, but Senator Slade Gorton (1928-2020) used his political clout and acumen to save it.
Another way the Greenway Trust leveraged funds to preserve open space was through King County Metro's Biosolids Forestry Program. Ellis's experience with the regional sewage system in the 1970s had familiarized him with biosolids, the nitrogen-rich organic material left over after sewage has been treated and dried. Spreading them over fields and forests increases productivity and solved Metro's biosolids disposal needs. Metro already sold biosolids to farmers in Eastern Washington and had set aside funding to purchase forest lands for biosolids application in Western Washington, but they encountered resistance from some citizens living close to some the forests in the more-urban west side. Seeing that Metro had funding for forest land purchases and with support from researchers at the University of Washington, the Greenway Trust sought to educate its board of directors and gain support from local officials and environmental organizations for Metro to purchase timberland in the greenway.
The biosolids program had additional benefits. Proceeds supported a youth education program to teach about recycling and preserving forests near urban areas. It also supported work on unused, eroding logging roads by youth volunteers that reduced landslides, erosion, and silting in streams, many of which provide salmon habitat. A highly visible restoration project began in 1997 on a logging road near North Bend known as the Zorro Cut because of the zigzagging slash it created in the forested hillside, which has now all but disappeared.
In 1999, planning for a controversial project got underway. Weyerhaeuser owned several hundred acres on Grouse Ridge that contained massive gravel deposits and was zoned for gravel mining. The gravel was in high demand for concrete in the fast-growing metropolitan region. The Greenway Trust feared that a traditional gravel mine would scar the viewshed directly adjacent to the freeway and the land would be subdivided for residential development once the gravel was mined.
To prevent that outcome, the Greenway Trust began putting together a deal that would mitigate the gravel mine's impact and protect the forest over the long term. Weyerhaeuser agreed to work with Jones and Jones to design the gravel pit so that it is hidden by the crest of Grouse Ridge. Once mining is completed, Cadman, the gravel company, will reforest the land and transfer it to public ownership for open space.
Some nearby residents opposed the gravel mine on any terms because of the noise, traffic, and impact on the landscape. Greenway Trust staff and board members worked to educate the public about the deal's long-term benefits. Board member Mark Boyar wrote in an op-ed for The Seattle Times, "Weyerhaeuser could have dug every last stone out of those hills, and in 2020 pushed for a zoning conversion to allow housing when another million people live here and are clamoring for more three-car-garage subdivisions" (Boyar). Eventually the deal was approved and mining began in 2008. The Jones and Jones design worked as intended; in 2021 evidence of the gravel mine and its associated activity was essentially hidden from view of travelers along the freeway.
More Land, Parks, Trails
At the greenway's western end in Seattle, urban trails provide linkages between Puget Sound and the interior. In 1998, the Central Park Trail was completed, linking park facilities in the city's Central District with schools and providing a connection to the forestlands in the greenway. The East Lake Sammamish Trail connects Issaquah and Redmond to the Burke-Gilman Trail. The route between the mountains and sound is not yet complete on the south side of Seattle, but a number of pieces are in place, including the Mountains to Sound Trail from Dr. José Rizal Park to the SODO neighborhood.
Land was acquired in 1999 when Snoqualmie Point, slated for development with eight commercial buildings, was purchased by The Trust for Public Land and transferred to public ownership. The City of Snoqualmie opened Snoqualmie Point Park, with a view over the Snoqualmie Valley and the Greenway Trust led the development of a new trail connecting the park at Snoqualmie Point with Rattlesnake Ledge. When it opened in 2008, it connected to the existing Rattlesnake Ledge Trail, on the eastern slope, offering hikers the opportunity to hike 10.2 miles from the park to Rattlesnake Lake.
A new tool in public land acquisition was introduced in the greenway in 2000 when Port Blakely Communities and Glacier Ridge Partnership, developers of the Issaquah Highlands on Grand Ridge, paid King County $2.75 million to transfer 63 rural density credits from 313 acres of forested land to the Issaquah Highlands project, which allowed additional commercial development. The county acquired the forested land (which connected Grand Ridge with state-owned land on Mitchell Hill), and trails provide public access.
Transfer of development rights was used again in 2004, when King County bought the development rights on 104,000 acres of Weyerhaeuser's Snoqualmie Tree Farm, preventing future development, but allowing continued logging. Ellis noted, "Harvests help keep timber jobs in the traditional timber towns in rural King County" ("Spectacular Week," 2).
In the 1990s, a Kittitas County subcommittee was formed to focus on the greenway's eastern portion. Building on earlier successes with the Coal Mines Trail and the South Cle Elum Depot, some large swaths of timberland were brought into public ownership in the 2010s. In 2013, the state purchased about 50,000 acres near Cle Elum (the Teanaway Community Forest) as part of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan. Kittitas County's support for such a deal was partly driven by decreases in logging, as lower forest productivity and the distance to sawmills and markets made it less viable. Just as Ellis had predicted on the Cascades' west slope, once working forests became financially untenable, timberland was more likely to be sold for development, bringing new costs to county government for services, which can exceed the revenue from property taxes. In contrast, the community forest will attract visitors at little expense to the county.
To promote awareness, the Greenway Trust hosted several annual Greenway Days. Through the Mountains to Sound Adventure Relay, a scavenger hunt, and other events, they hoped to reach the large number of people who, according to Issaquah city administrator Leon Kos, "either don't know why we don't have strip city along I-90, or they know the highway corridor is a 'greenway' but they have only a vague idea of what that means" ("Greenway Discovery Days," 3). The Greenway Trust regularly hosts "Explore the Greenway" events.
New Decade, New Leadership
In 2001, Ellis stepped down from his position as board president. He was succeeded by Sally Jewell, the chief executive officer for REI who later served as Secretary of Interior under President Barack Obama and had served on the board since the Greenway Trust was established. Jewell, the board, and staff looked to the future and how the organization should evolve. While there still remained parcels of land to preserve, the greenway primarily needed to be maintained and protected as development pressure increased. Also, the organization began to shift to a stronger executive director and supporting staff, rather than a board-president-led model. This change accelerated at the end of Bill Chapman's term as board president when the board hired Jon Hoekstra to succeed Cynthia Welti as executive director in 2015.
Land deals in the 2000s brought thousands of acres under development in both counties. The developers of Suncadia resort near Roslyn protected Easton Ridge from development and purchased 302 acres of land for public open space adjacent to the resort. The Snoqualmie Preservation Initiative, a deal between King County, Weyerhaeuser, the City of Snoqualmie, and the Cascade Land Conservancy (Forterra, today) protected the land behind Snoqualmie Falls, 2,800 acres in the Raging River Valley, 650 acres in the Snoqualmie River Valley, and the Preston-Snoqualmie Trail.
National Heritage Area
In the 2010s, the Greenway Trust pursued National Heritage Area designation. Representatives Dave Reichert (b. 1950) and Adam Smith (b. 1965), from the 8th and 9th Legislative Districts, respectively, both of which included land in the greenway, introduced the legislation in 2013 and again in 2017, joined by fellow Washington representatives Suzan DelBene (b. 1962) and Pramila Jayapal (b. 1965). Representative Kim Schrier (b. 1968), and senators Patty Murray (b. 1950) and Maria Cantwell (b. 1958), also supported the legislation. No new regulations came with 2019 designation, but it named the Greenway Trust as the coordinating entity and required development of a cooperative management plan. Designation also promotes the greenway to a national audience and encourages federal agencies to engage with the greenway and its goals.
Discussions about the relationship between the area's tribal governments and the Greenway Trust emerged as work began on the cooperative management plan. The tribes have government-to-government relationships with the federal government because of their status as sovereign nations and treaties signed in the 1850s. The Snoqualmie Tribe, the Tulalip Tribes, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, the Yakama Nation, and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation all have traditional territories within the greenway boundaries and the Snoqualmie Tribe's tribally owned land and reservation are in the greenway.
Recreational uses can infringe on traditional cultural practices and places that are culturally and spiritually significant to tribal members. This is a tension that is felt across the country where some of the most beautiful and iconic places that have been culturally significant to Indigenous people since time immemorial have become popular with hikers, campers, and other recreational users. In conversations with tribal leaders, Greenway Trust staff and board members are developing a better understanding of the tribes' priorities and exploring how to protect those interests.
The Greenway Trust's focus has shifted to projects that will ensure the greenway can meet the needs of communities into the future. With funding from the Department of Natural Resources and other agencies, the Greenway Trust has managed trail maintenance projects, including new trailhead facilities and a better route to Mailbox Peak in 2014. They have been involved in public processes, such as the development of the 2015 Snoqualmie Corridor Recreation Plan, which lays out plans to manage uses by providing separate spaces for activities that are not compatible with each other, such as mountain bikes and hiking, and ensures access for all types of recreation.
The challenges faced by the Greenway Trust include familiar ones, such as development pressure, and some new ones. As logging has become less viable across King and Kittitas counties and more land is owned by investment groups rather than timber companies, the old open space preservation strategies are less effective. There is still a desire to acquire inholdings, those parcels of privately owned land surrounded by public lands, and riverfront properties to consolidate ownership of forests and wetlands. In addition to environmental restoration and stewardship, the Greenway Trust plans to continue advocating for equitable access to nature and outdoor experiences, and to promoting awareness of the myriad ways the Mountains to Sound Greenway landscape improves the region's livability for a wide range of communities.