WWU student puts Bellingham's Galbraith Mountain on the map

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 16, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - The web of mountain biking trails on Galbraith Mountain climb, switch back, loop and crisscross. Trails close or get moved, to accommodate logging or generate fresh excitement for riders.

If only there were a website that was always updated with the latest trail information.

Mountain biker Virginia Cleaveland, a Western Washington University graduate student, was frustrated that she couldn't go online to check the current status of a trail or get recommended routes.

"You wouldn't even know (a trail) was closed until you went up there," Cleaveland said.

The nonprofit that manages the trails, the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition, hired a trail director in 2013 to improve communication. But the bicyclists at WMBC didn't make updating a website a top priority.

Cleaveland decided to fix the problem. She unveiled GalbraithMountainMap.com on June 6. Her website helped her earn the master's degree in environmental education she received Saturday, June 14, during Western graduation ceremonies.

WMBC Trail Director Eric Brown said the map meets a need.

"During the fall, winter, early spring timeframe, the mountain is always in some kind of flux as far as (timber) harvest areas," Brown said. "That's one big thing: (The map) allows us to update users of the mountain."

The map, based on precise GIS data, took 11/2 years to conceive and build, with the help of four senior computer science majors: Chip Jackson, Sean Palmer, Mari Sagawa and Jordan Sjodin.

In addition to the trails - 50 miles on 3,000 acres - Cleaveland's map shows local bicycle and running shops. Runners were included, Cleaveland said, to attract a "wider audience for a conversation about conservation."

That's how Cleaveland's map project fit her degree, a master of education in environmental education.

"I'm coming from the environmental ed department. I very clearly want Galbraith Mountain to be conserved," Cleaveland said.

For a new wave of conservationists, the key to keeping developers off Galbraith is to promote recreation. Cleaveland's map could be part of that effort.

"The old-school conservation folks were setting aside land and locking it up and not letting people use it," Brown said. "The more you get people invested in saving it, preserving it ... that's a changing tide of the conservation movement."

The mountain ranks No. 1 on singletracks.com among mountain-bike trails in Washington state, but this news hasn't traveled as far as it could. A 2014 survey by WMBC showed 70 percent of Galbraith riders live in Whatcom County. About 16 percent were from the Seattle-Bellevue area, and 6 percent were from British Columbia.

B.C. is home to an even more highly regarded mountain bike playground. Whistler is on singletracks.com's list of 10 best mountain bike destinations in North America.

"We could benefit from piggybacking on their success," Cleaveland said. "As people are driving to B.C., they're passing through Bellingham."

But Galbraith's long-term future as a mountain biking mecca is in doubt. The property is for sale.

Bicyclists are organizing a conservation push, emboldened after helping to convince the state and county in 2013 to convert, or reconvey, nearly 9,000 acres of timber land into park land around Lake Whatcom. Brown said WMBC and other groups are getting organized for Galbraith, but he declined to give details yet.

"I think everybody wants to see a commercial working forest with recreation on it, moving forward," Brown said.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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