DAYTON — Imagine a trail — a seamless network of bicycle, pedestrian and horseback byways — connecting all the communities along the Blue Mountain foothills from Milton-Freewater to Dayton and west to Burbank.

A National Park Service grant awarded this month has brought this dream one step closer to reality, according to Mary Campbell with Walla Walla’s Community Council.

“This will be such a huge boon to our communities,” she said. “I’m so excited I just can’t stand it.”

The noncash grant provides one year of assistance, with an option to extend for another year, from Dan Miller, a lead project manager with the National Park Service in the agency’s Portland field office.

With his assistance and technical expertise, regional participants will prepare a blueprint for the trail.

“This ‘Blue Mountain Region Trails — Ridges, Towns, and Rivers’ planning effort will allow local entities to adopt identified sidewalk, bike route, and trail recommendations into their own comprehensive plans,” Campbell said.

Communities can then use the blueprints to “unlock” federal and state funds granted for developing the trails and related facilities, such as wheelchair access or restrooms, she said.

The Park Service grant will focus on public outreach, trail route identification and the production of plans.

Miller, the project lead, has 17 years of experience with providing assistance through the Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance program and has worked on numerous regional trail projects across the Pacific Northwest, according to Campbell.

A system of Blue Mountain regional trails was identified as a common goal beginning last year, when Community Council published a study on “Enhancing Outdoor Recreation Opportunities.”

During the course of that study, participants learned outdoor recreation has become increasingly important as a healthful lifestyle choice and in connection with regional economic development.

“The outdoor recreation industry in the U.S. is a $645 billion business overall,” according to the report.

Joy Smith, president of the Waitsburg Commercial Club, said about one-third of overnight lodgers in the city ride or bring bikes when they come to town.

“The addition of a regional, continuous, safe bike path will increase overnight stays in our collective communities,” she said. “The Waitsburg Commercial Club and the city of Waitsburg support this project wholeheartedly.”

In Dayton, participants at the annual Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies meeting last December said developing a bike path to connect Dayton and Waitsburg should be the third-highest priority in the county.

This idea for a nonmotorized trail connecting communities came up again at several of the Community Conversation planning sessions sponsored by Community Council across the region his spring and summer.

Then word got out about the National Park Service grant, and everyone wanted to take a shot at securing it. In April and May, various partners and stakeholders convened for several brainstorming sessions, working to prepare and submit an application for the technical assistance grant.

Representatives came from the cities of College Place, Dayton, Milton-Freewater, Waitsburg and Walla Walla; the counties of Columbia, Umatilla and Walla Walla; county health departments, the Partnership for Greater Burbank and the ports of Columbia and Walla Walla, as well as the Walla Walla Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization and Community Council.

“It turns out, the different communities were all planning for trails individually, and what we really want is to have them all connect to each other,” said Brad McMasters, economic development coordinator with the Port of Columbia.

The next step will be to start new rounds of community outreach, according to Campbell.

Community Council will coordinate meetings in late January, where interested citizens will be able to view maps and information on existing infrastructure and provide input on additional destinations and connectivity, she said.

Dian Ver Valen can be reached at dianvervalen@wwub.com or 526-8363 or 509-956-8312.

Dian is editor of the Union-Bulletin and Lifestyles magazine. She received her bachelor's in journalism from Western Washington University in 2003. She received her master's in communication and leadership from Gonzaga.