Paths Between Neighbors: New Trails in Conservation

The Okanogan Valley image: Jones & Jones

The Okanogan Valley
image: Jones & Jones

Paths Between Neighbors (PBN) is an innovative strategy to get private property owners who have not been actively involved in land conservation excited about and collaborating in land stewardship.  Piloted by the Okanagan Valley Land Trust (OVLT), PBN is being used to further OVLT’s work in preserving the native landscapes, working farms, and ranches across the rugged hills of the Okanogan Highlands in eastern Washington.

Residents of the Okanagan Valley tend to be fiercely independent, come from all points in the political spectrum, and by and large share a love of the land.  Yet OVLT has found that getting local landowners engaged in land conservation outside their own property is a challenge. So two like-minded OVLT members wanting to make a connection between their own farms had an idea. They asked, “could we link folks together along a path and in so doing encourage conservation?”

Their goal was to create an informal walking path between their two properties (which are separated by 8 miles and 2500’ in elevation) and link together other residents interested in conservation to create a walking route through the most interesting and special parts of the landscape. The path would utilize both public lands and private lands with conservation easements. As envisioned, those who live along this path would become more knowledgeable and engaged in land conservation over time. Essentially as land along the path become better stewarded, the path would not only be the focus of an affinity group, but also would become a conservation corridor, enhancing wildlife connectivity and improving native ecosystems.

The inagural Paths Between Neighbors Route. image: Jones & Jones

The inaugural Paths Between Neighbors Route.
image: Jones & Jones

Potential corridors for the path were identified using the extensive knowledge of OVLC members and local landowners and the land planning and GIS modeling capabilities of OVLC’s project partner, Jones & Jones Landscape Architects. Because participation by local land owners was crucial to the identification of a path corridor, Jones & Jones developed a planning methodology and GIS tool that gave voice to both the people and the land.

Jones & Jones used watersheds and sub-watersheds to establish a landscape spatial framework for assessing and understanding the complex landscape of the Okanogan. Jones and Jones also developed five primary criteria for determining potential path routes and conservation corridors through this landscape. These criteria were quantifiable and mapable in GIS and included the identification of Signature Landscapes, Major Viewsheds, Walkable Landscapes, Landowner Preferences, and Parcel Ownership & Proximity. Jones & Jones then composited and processed the criteria-based mapping with a “Model Builder” tool to determine potential path corridors and potential path partners on a sub-watershed basis.

The mapping provided an effective way to discuss landscape qualities and characteristics with property owners and show them how their holdings fit into the larger landscape spatial framework. The testing and selection of a primary route segment and tributary routes followed a four-step process (see the following image).  The validity of a route segment was affirmed and received a tentative “YES” in step 3 only upon consent of the landowner and initial ground-truthing showed favorable conditions.  Landowners who fully signed on to the concept were identified as committed partners while those who remained uncertain were considered potential partners.

The Paths Between Neighbors methodology and process.  image: Jones & Jones

The Paths Between Neighbors methodology and process.
image: Jones & Jones

The path created from the mapping and one-on-one property owner discussions was not to be a marked trail or constitute permission for public access.  It was the basis on which to create an informal group of neighboring landowners who would get to know one another and find mutual interests in land management and stewardship.  As folks warmed to the idea of the path and to meeting some people they didn’t know over in the next watershed, they gave permission for other path partners to walk their land. Neighbors were then invited to participate in a bi-annual walk along the path corridor to collectively affirm the route.

Thirteen landowners participated in the inaugural walk. Six landowners had previously not heard of the Okanogan Valley Land Trust (OVLT) while two others had heard about the project and contacted OVLT, asking to be included.  Sixteen hardy individuals participated in a two-day 12 mile trek from the Okanogan Highlands to the Okanogan River as part of the first Paths Between Neighbors walk.  Five landowners did the entire two day hike while others walked with the group across only their property. One landowner with small children greeted walkers from the door. It was two days of enjoying camaraderie with neighbors, while crossing a beautiful and varied landscape. As word spread of the walk, several land owners contacted the OVLT wanting to participate. Each ensuing walk has brought more land owners together.

Landowners traversing the landscape.  image: Walter Henze

Landowners traversing the landscape.
image: Walter Henze

These walks and ensuing discussions have provided a time for neighbors to share their knowledge about the land, open space preservation, conservation easements, and stewardship.  Path partners and others who live along the path have become more knowledgeable and engaged in land conservation.  By identifying potential pathways between their properties, private land owners and their neighbors are working together to stitch together public and private lands into a valuable and enduring conservation network.

by Garrret A. Devier, ASLA, Jones & Jones Landscape Architects

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