Bay Area Ridge Trail Rewilding Project: Completing the Loop

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REI has invested more than $77 million in nonprofits over the decades to help build and steward our nation’s trail network. The co-op launched five Rewilding Projects, one more way we’re creating access and stewarding outdoor places across the country. As part of this multi-year, multi-million-dollar program, REI is collaborating with nonprofits in five cities to help provide millions of people with easier access to nearby outdoor places and reshape how people in large urban and suburban areas connect with the outdoors. These investments are different from other REI grants because they are bigger, bolder, more complex, highly collaborative and regional in scope.

If you’re in the Bay Area, you’re never more than 30 minutes away from the stunning views, wide-open spaces and peaceful settings that surround one of the largest metro areas in the country: the Bay Area Ridge Trail.

This 550-mile-long multi-use trail—370 miles are currently open—along the hill and mountain ridgelines ringing the San Francisco Bay serves 8 million people through nine counties, from Mount St. Helena to south of San Jose. REI is helping complete this brainchild of the late William Penn Mott Jr., former head of the National Park Service and superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. His bold vision for the Bay Area began to take shape in the late 1980s: to ultimately connect people, parks and open spaces along a ridgeline trail.

The vision is a completely connected 550-mile trail on the ridgelines surrounding San Francisco Bay. Today, 370 miles (and growing!) of the regional trail provide close proximity to nature and adventure. The remaining 180 miles are made up of missing sections that face a diverse and complex range of issues before they can be opened. That’s where REI comes in with its Rewilding Project investments.

“The Ridge Trail nurtures current and future generations of environmental stewards who want to protect our region.”

– Janet McBride, executive director, Bay Area Ridge Trail Council

Along with obvious environmental and health benefits for residents, visitors and everyone who likes to ride, hike and be out in nature, the Bay Area Ridge Trail is a crucial element of the area. It acts as a catalyst for land conservation and preservation, knitting together wild open space and natural habitat for wildlife. According to Janet McBride, executive director, Bay Area Ridge Trail Council, “The Ridge Trail nurtures current and future generations of environmental stewards who want to protect our region.”

The co-op has invested in the Ridge Trail for decades, but the Rewilding Project goes way beyond funding. Now REI is helping accelerate the project’s completion by increasing the organization’s capacity and supporting efforts to convene key stakeholders to increase alignment and awareness about the trail.

“When we met with Steve Wood, REI market manager, about the Rewilding Project and the Ridge Trail,” recalls Janet, he said, “What a great project. We love the Ridge Trail; let’s see how REI can help finish it!” That committed enthusiasm–from REI to dedicated volunteers to the long-standing board of the council–is a constant pleasant surprise to Janet and feeds the forward motion of the project.

Enter Philip Watkins, REI OPO market coordinator. Self-professed conduit of the Ridge Trail to REI, Philip mentions it anytime he gets a chance to speak to anyone at the co-op.

“I see myself as an honorary Ridge Trail employee,” he says, describing his relationship with the small organization that serves a very large geographical area as helping them reach beyond their capacity. “Our main goal is building more awareness,” says Philip, who became familiar with the trail 12 years ago. The strategy of “more awareness equals more political capital” equates to more prodding to get the rest of the sections done.

“If you’re an avid hiker or mountain biker in the area, you’ve probably been on the trail already.” – Philip Watkins, REI Outdoor Programs and Outreach market coordinator.

Even though this is a large legacy-type project, fewer outdoor enthusiasts than you might expect know about the Ridge Trail, even though, as Philip comments, “If you’re an avid hiker or mountain biker in the area, you’ve probably been on the trail already.”

“We’re trying to build the same awareness as the Appalachian, Pacific Crest or John Muir trails,” says Janet, noting that getting to that level is a challenge but definitely doable. She firmly believes that the REI partnership has been an invigorating factor. With REI stores all around the same region as the Ridge Trail, the co-op provides key support in helping create stewardship opportunities and open doors through outings and events. REI has begun to create a store presence for the Ridge Trail with large banners and has paired the council with our Brand Lab team for a rebranding process and relaunch of the new Ridge Trail brand, trail signs and website.

That passion is unmistakable every year on Ridge Trail Day. For the past 10 years, on the first Saturday in November, REI members and the public have been invited to join one of the 10 to 16 trail-work parties all around the region and volunteer on the trail. “It helps build awareness,” says Philip, noting that the event is one of the co-op’s largest, with between 800 and 900 volunteers involved. “That’s a lot of stewardship shirts going out!”

San Francisco-area food bank chef Don Nolan cycled 550 miles and 68,000 feet in April to build awareness for the iconic trails conservation of open space. The Golden Gate Bridge, Russian Ridge and Sonoma Mountain were just a few of the landmarks along his route. Experiencing every nuance of the Ridge Trail, from ankle-deep mud to gliding on hard pack, his trek was complete with redwoods, seaside views, wildlife, hills and coastal panoramas.

In order to connect the right groups to work together to open the remaining 180 miles of trail, Janet and her team are focusing on a variety of challenges that impact the missing sections, including financial and infrastructure issues, route challenges and use gaps.

When will the trail be complete?

According to Janet, the easier sections are finished, so each new one becomes more and more challenging. “Our goal is that we’ll be finished in a generation,” she says. “That toddler who is taking their first steps, on their 21st birthday, they’ll be able to travel all around the Ridge Trail.”

Until then, there’s plenty for the rest of us to do. Philip suggests becoming a member of the Bay Area Ridge Trail and taking part in some of their events. “If you live in the Bay Area, there’s a section nearby,” he offers. “Go discover it and just hike it. See what makes it special in your neck of the woods.” Locals can also become advocates and talk to people about the trail and the legacy it will bring or find out why missing sections aren’t complete yet and get engaged with political pressure.

If you’re not a resident, think about how this unique trail in such a heavily populated area can inspire similar projects in your world. Or simply add a visit to the Bay Area Ridge Trail to your bucket list of major trails and experience it for yourself! Visit ridgetrail.org for trail maps and tools and news about events, trail progress and other happenings.

Without realizing it, we are becoming the world’s first indoor species. As REI looks to help communities change the course of the slow walk indoors, the co-op has launched “The Path Ahead” a new report that captures trends that affect the future of life outdoors. The Bay Area Ridge Trail is one example of how REI is bringing people together to realize the full potential and benefits of time spent outdoors.

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