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Mountains to Sound Greenway comes of age

By Warren Kagarise
Issaquah Press
Leaders nurture Interstate 90 greenbelt, acre by acre, year by year

Like the matter-of-fact name suggests, the Mountains to Sound Greenway starts amid the souvenir shops and seafood restaurants at the Seattle waterfront, unfurls along Interstate 90, encompassing cities and forests, and continues on, across the Cascades.

Issaquah, situated on the route, is not quite at the center, but the city is central in the long effort to create a greenbelt along the major roadway.

The idea for a conservation corridor along the interstate germinated in Issaquah more than 20 years ago. Issaquah Alps Trails Club members spearheaded a 1990 march from Snoqualmie Pass to Puget Sound to attract attention to the proposed greenbelt — a sort of Central Park for Western Washington.

The disparate citizen, conservation, corporate and government interests behind the proposal coalesced to form the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust in 1991. Supporters marched from Ellensburg to Seattle in early July to celebrate the 20-year milestone.

“The original vision was, what can we agree on to preserve what’s important to everyone along this corridor?” retired Issaquah City Administrator Leon Kos said.

The corridor stretches for 100 miles, connects 1.4 million acres — or a landmass about 15 times larger than Seattle — and includes more than 800,000 acres in public ownership.

The conservation is enmeshed in cooperation.

The organization is built to foster dialogue among divergent groups. Seattle civic leader Jim Ellis, founding president of the greenway trust, called on rivals to sit down at the same table to create the conservation corridor. So, representatives on the 58-member board include the Sierra Club and Weyerhaeuser Co.

Kos, a longtime greenway supporter and board member, said the Issaquah Alps Trail Club assumed a fundamental role early on.

“The community group that was really very instrumental was the Issaquah Alps Trails Club,” he said.

Ken Konigsmark, a Boeing Co. executive and former Issaquah Alps Trails Club president, spent a decade on loan from the aerospace company at the greenway trust.


The Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust is a coalition of citizen, conservation, corporate and government organizations formed to establish and maintain a greenbelt along Interstate 90. Major initiatives and land acquisitions in the Issaquah area shaped the greenway during the last 21 years.

1990 Citizens, led by the Issaquah Alps Trails Club, march from Snoqualmie Pass to the Seattle waterfront to dramatize the need for a greenway plan.

1991 Citizens form the nonprofit Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. Seattle civic leader Jim Ellis is the founding president.

1992 The state Department of Natural Resources designates more than 4,000 acres on Tiger Mountain, just east of Issaquah, as a natural resource conservation area.

1995 Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission leaders add 620 acres to increase the size of Squak Mountain State Park.

1996 King County initiates 4-to-1 land-use program on Grand Ridge to preserve 1,400 acres of open space.

1997 King County acquires 1,300 acres of Taylor Mountain forest to protect Issaquah Creek and Lake Sammamish headwaters.

1998 Federal Highway Administration officials designate the 100-mile greenway as a National Scenic Byway.

2000 The state Department of Natural Resources acquires 640 acres on Tiger Mountain near Issaquah.

2005 Major ecological restoration project at Lake Sammamish starts, and adds 4,500 native trees and shrubs.

2008 Issaquah acquires 10 parcels along Issaquah Creek to protect stream quality and expand a city park.

2009 Raging River 7,000-acre land acquisition connects Taylor, Tiger and Rattlesnake mountains to the Cedar River watershed.

2011 Marchers re-create the 1990 trek from Central Washington to the Seattle waterfront.

Source: Mountains to Greenway Trust

“Issaquah is the key to the founding of the greenway,” he said.

Issaquah Alps Trails Club President David Kappler, a former Issaquah councilman, also led the organization in 1990 and participated in the arduous march from Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle.

“I think we can take credit for getting the seed to germinate. It was out there, but the trails club got it to germinate, and we got it growing a little bit,” he said. “It grew a whole bunch more when the actual greenway trust was formed. If we hadn’t pushed it, demonstrated it with the march and really said, ‘Hey, this is something that the region can do that’s really important’” the greenway might not exist.

The successful efforts to shield Cougar Mountain from construction and establish Tiger Mountain State Forest also offered a template for conservation in the greenway.

“Showing what, basically, a group of unpaid volunteers was able to do around Issaquah, I think, gave hope,” Kappler recalled. “We could be doing this on much more of the I-90 corridor.”

The forests along the bustling interstate offer habitat for black bears and other species. Trails meander along the greenway, from flat sidewalks in suburban cities to paths perched on mountainsides. Crews log some areas in a compromise between economic and environmental interests.

“It’s not about trees instead of people,” Doug Schindler, greenway trust deputy director and a Preston resident, said late last month. “It’s about a balance between the two.”

The equilibrium is built into the greenbelt. Organizers planned for farms and forests to form a patchwork inside the corridor.

“They could be recreational. They could be working forests. They could be a combination,” Kos said. “We had to look at multiple ways of making it successful.”

The corridor includes some 75,000 forested acres under private ownership. Small farms dot the landscape in King and Kittitas counties.

Members search for common ground

The early leaders on the project credit the effort to establish a greenbelt for promoting more than conservation.

The greenway organization formed amid the acrimonious debate about protection for the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest, and organizers intended to circumvent a similar showdown related to construction and logging in the greenbelt.

“I think the greenway was kind of a momentum-builder and a unifier,” Kos said. “One of the most important things about the greenway, in my opinion, was bringing diverse groups and interests together, diverse agencies together, to try to implement a common goal.”

United on the same mission, members engineered land purchases and transfers to set aside large tracts for conservation. The unprecedented preservation occurred as the population in the region boomed to about 2 million.

“The fact that we, in this region, had the sensibility to know better than to destroy the very quality of life that attracts people here in the first place,” Konigsmark said. “We have the vision and foresight to say, ‘Let’s not let ourselves become Los Angeles North,’ which is what would have happened otherwise.”

Louis Musso, greenway trust vice president for Kittitas County and a Cle Elum resident, said perceptions about the organization continue to evolve in Central Washington.

“I would say, 10 years ago, there was kind of a mistrust of the greenway. It was just another bunch of 206’er environmental extremists,” he said. “I don’t think anyone thinks that now. It has an excellent reputation for being balanced and reasonable and trying to find workable solutions, rather than trying to litigate what they want.”

Greenway endures arduous start

The effort to establish a greenbelt from Puget Sound to the Cascades endured a difficult start — rugged terrain and rock-strewn paths on the 1990 march.

“All of us had our feet torn up the first day,” Kappler recalled. “It was pretty bad.”

The trekkers set off from the former Mountaineers’ Lodge at Snoqualmie Pass and slogged for more than 20 miles on the opening day. (The landmark lodge burned to the ground in May 2006.)

Jack Hornung, a greenway founder and urban planning expert, relied on theatrics to attract attention to the still-nascent cause.

“Jack was really into opera. The connection there is, he wanted to make a show out of this,” Kappler said. “Marching into Seattle after making the five-day march — and it was a brutal march.”

Gary Locke joined the march for a stretch. The then-state senator later served as King County executive, Washington governor and U.S. secretary of commerce. Locke is the President Barack Obama’s designee to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to China.

“The three days he was with us, we worked him over real hard, I assure you,” Kappler said. “Not only about the greenway, but I worked him over about education as well. He was a good sport on the whole thing, that’s for sure. It gave him quite a background for when he became county executive.”

Mayor Ava Frisinger remembered a celebration in downtown Issaquah as the marchers stopped for a rest.

Issaquah leaders and residents soon came to embrace the city as a gateway to “wild places” for recreation, Frisinger said.

Greenway leaders plan for next 20 years

The next step for the greenway is a push to receive designation as a National Heritage Area — special recognition from the federal government to promote historic preservation.

“The goal is that while we have true believers and supporters in the key positions today — whether that’s at DNR, Forest Service, or city and county political offices and so on — what about 10 years from now?” Konigsmark said. “You’ll have a new generation of leaders who will go, ‘What the hell is this greenway thing? Why don’t we get rid of it, and let’s build homes on Tiger Mountain.’”

Max Ashburn, communications director for Scenic America, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation, said a National Heritage Area receives special attention.

“It’s why it’s all the more important that you protect places like greenways and scenic byways from advertising and development, because people really need and want to have these places where they can go to be peaceful, be with nature and relax,” he said.

In the decades ahead, leaders said issues related to the greenway could shift eastward to address development in Central Washington, especially as residential construction slows in East King County.

“When you think about it, 20 years ago, no one was even thinking about resorts or second homes over here. This was just a dead, ex-coalmining town,” Musso said in a telephone interview from Cle Elum. “The conditions have changed here in Kittitas County over the last 20 years far more than they have in King. I think they’ll change far more here in the next 20 years.”

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