Kevin Gorman, Executive Director, Friends of the Columbia Gorge (email)
Lizzie Keenan, Regional Coordinator, Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge Tourism Alliance (email)
Steve Kruger, Executive Director, Trailkeepers of Oregon (email)
Sometimes big ideas start small. In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service asked Friends of the Columbia Gorge to help manage the growing pressures of hikers each spring at Dog Mountain. Positive responses to the volunteer effort led the Forest Service, Friends, Oregon State Parks, and the Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge Regional Tourism Alliance to come together to create the Trail Ambassador program that served over a dozen recreation sites last year, with 106 volunteers connecting with 18,928 hikers.
Not surprisingly, with the phenomenal success of Trail Ambassadors, regions around Oregon and Washington are eager for their own versions of the program. We fully support this next phase of the program, and this past fall representatives from the founding Trail Ambassadors partners met in a series of discussions facilitated by Travel Oregon and REI to explore how our model can be sustainably expanded to other regions. We are excited to announce that Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) has volunteered to lead efforts to transform Trail Ambassadors into a new, regional network to help meet needs across Oregon. This will include taking over core, day-to-day management of the new Trail Ambassador network from Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
This was a carefully thought-out transition that has been in the works for months and Friends will continue on as the new Trail Ambassador network's first partner non-governmental organization, focusing on sites on the Washington side of the Gorge and popular Friends public preserves, such as Mosier Plateau. Friends also will continue to be a key player at the table with government agencies and the Mt. Hood and Columbia River Gorge Regional Tourism Alliance to help TKO further the new Trail Ambassadors' stability and growth.
The partnership between Friends, TKO, and the Mt. Hood and Columbia River Gorge Regional Tourism Alliance is strong. When TKO hired its first staff person, Steve Kruger, Friends offered to house Steve in their offices. Nearly three years and four employees later, TKO is still operating out of Friends' offices and the organizations gradually worked to have TKO take over the the program during the fall of 2019. We all worked through the Eagle Creek fire together and see this step as a natural evolution for TKO becoming a statewide presence for trail advocacy and maintenance.
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Moving to a new network model presents a unique opportunity for the partners of Trail Ambassadors to more easily manage the work within the scope of their organizations and allow new interested groups in Oregon and Washington to participate. With TKO at the helm, they will be able to lead the effort to spread Trail Ambassadors to new areas across Oregon that would also benefit from ambassadors at trails, beaches, and other public places under many pressures from increasing visitor impacts.
Additionally, TKO's new leadership role in the program will allow Natalie Ferraro to continue on as Trail Ambassadors coordinator from 2019 in her full-time role as TKO's Engagement Coordinator. This not only provides continuity for volunteers, but Natalie’s experience and knowledge of the program will help to build synergies with new partners beyond the Gorge. Natalie and her colleagues at TKO already have exciting ideas to improve the ambassador volunteer experience, from initial training to the time spent out on the trail.
There's more exciting news to come in the weeks ahead and we encourage those interested in hearing updates on Trail Ambassadors, including opportunities to volunteer, to join TKO's new Trail Ambassadors news list.
We're looking forward to an amazing 2020 season!