‘Like hitting three home runs in a row,’ Spokane County park planner takes the big picture to conservation, recreation

It’s likely you don’t know Paul Knowles.

But you almost certainly know his work.

Over the past decade, the 38-year-old Spokane transplant has been a key force behind the region’s growing trail and green space portfolio, in the process reshaping regional recreation for decades to come.

As Spokane County’s park planner, his work is often dry and behind the scenes. While others swing Pulaskis (although he’s been known to pick one up on occasion), Knowles submits impeccable grant applications, coordinates volunteer efforts and generally takes in the big picture.

If you’ve ever appreciated a well-marked trail in Spokane County, stared longingly at Mica Peak’s snow-covered slopes while driving on I-90 or taken a quick lap up and down one of Beacon Hill’s numerous mountain bike trails after work, you owe Knowles a beer.

Particularly this year.

That’s because three Spokane County projects are ranked first in a highly competitive state grant program.

“That’s like hitting three home runs in a row,” said Jeff Lambert, the executive director of the Dishman Hills Conservancy and a veteran grant-writer. “If it was in the sports world, it would be on the front page of the newspaper.”

Unlike the sports world, these wins are making tangible and long-lasting differences to the quality of life in our region.

“We’re lucky to have someone so competent working behind the scenes for the public good,” said Rich Landers, the outdoors editor at the Spokesman-Review for 40 years and a trail guidebook author. “He’s the right man at the right time for Spokane County Conservation Futures.”

In May, Knowles submitted two grant requests totaling $1.5 million that allowed the county and city to purchase several parcels of private land on Beacon Hill, thus preserving public access to a popular mountain biking area minutes from downtown Spokane. The sale was announced in August and made possible by the fact that both grant requests are No. 1 in the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program.

Every two years, the Washington Recreation and Conservation Office evaluates potential projects and ranks them. The nonprofit then submits a funding request to the Legislature. The Legislature allocates money to the program. Projects receive funding based on their ranking.

“Beacon Hill, that thing is on track,” Lambert said. “It makes me weep with happiness. He’s the most valued conservationist.”

Another Knowles grant, this one for Antoine Peak’s Etter Ranch project, also received top billing in the grant cycle.

“Our grant programs are very, very competitive and for a county to be that high on the various lists they applied for is incredible,” said Kaleen Cottingham, director of the Recreation and Conservation Office, which administers the grants. “It really talks about how much work they put in to showcase the project.”

Knowles also oversaw the completion of the Phillips Creek Trailhead, the “jumping-off point” for the new, 2.25-mile “Flying L Trail.” In recent years, he’s also pioneered the use of trailhead webcams, which allow users to check how busy a trailhead is before driving there. It’s a feature that sets Spokane apart from most other cities and counties in the United States.

Nor does he overlook the value of the seemingly small things. He’s designed and installed durable signage at conservation areas, something Landers calls “a huge improvement.”

“Spokane county residents know Paul Knowles as the person who has leveraged the conservation futures program and secured thousands upon thousands of acres for hiking, biking, and equestrian use,” said Todd Dunfield the community conservation program manager for the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy. “As happy as Paul has been to bring these gems into the public lands inventory, he is also just as committed to the preservation of plants and wildlife habitat. Paul is the kind of guy who gets distracted by raptors and by plant identification when visiting a property or piece of forest ground.”

The multifaceted nature of his work – grant wrangling combined with biology, recreation and a dash of history – is what got Knowles into the field in the first place.

Raised in Marysville, Washington, his father was a high school biology teacher who “instilled an appreciation of the natural world” in part by bringing VHS videos home he’d shown his students (think David Attenborough).

At the same time, Marysville was transforming from a sleepy town to a sprawling city.

“I saw a lot of forest land be converted over without seemingly a whole lot of thought put into parks and trails and conservation and planning,” Knowles said. “And I think that shaped a lot of my interest in land conservation.”

After high school, Knowles attended Western Washington University, where he studied history and geography. Curious and footloose, he took a series of seasonal jobs and backpacked in Europe and South America. He loved it, immersing himself in the history, geography, ecology and archeology of the places he visited.

All of which prompted the question: “What degree would basically encompass all of this?”

Well, of course, urban regional planning.

“I don’t have to choose just to be a biologist or a history teacher or an architect,” he said, his enthusiasm infectious even over the phone. “I can kind of wrap all that up into a single profession.”

He applied to graduate programs, eventually committing to the State University of New York in Buffalo. On a whim, however, he visited one more school: Eastern Washington University.

“I spent a weekend here,” he said. “I think I camped at Bowl and Pitcher. I walked around downtown and hit up some of the trails and said, ‘This place is awesome.’ ”

So he moved to Spokane and in 2008 he snagged an internship with Spokane County Parks. Two years later, they hired him.

From the first day of his internship, Knowles worked on recreation planning, starting first with the most basic of tasks: figuring out what trails the county had.

“The county didn’t have a great grasp on what we actually owned and what trails were on these properties,” he said.

That was a common situation for public land agencies. Prior to ubiquitous GPS and crowd sourced trail apps, mapping trails was expensive and time-consuming.

At the same time, more people were starting to move to Spokane, attracted by a lower cost of living and easy access to nature. Luckily for Knowles and the region, since 1994 the county has had a taxpayer-funded conservation program, the Conservation Futures program. As an intern and early in his career, Knowles learned the ins and outs of using locally raised money, combined with state grant money, to fund projects.

All of which allowed Knowles, and the county, to speed up the rate at which they were conserving green space in the Spokane region and developing new trails. A quest made all the more urgent by the fact that less than 10% of Spokane County is public land.

Around the same time Knowles started at the county, statewide organizations like the Washington Trails Association and the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance opened Eastern Washington chapters and hired staff.

That last bit proved to be important, since conserving the land isn’t enough. Once the county purchases it, a viable recreation and management plan has to be made. That means coordinating the various volunteer groups that do the actual trail building.

Well-designed trails and trailheads, combined with amenities like trailhead webcams, aim to spread users out.

Since 2016, at least 13 miles of new single-track trail have been built by volunteers on county parkland, all coordinated by Knowles. In that same time, the county has built, on average, one new trailhead a year.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of that work. Trailheads have been jammed as usual recreation routines are upended by the virus. That’s only renewed Knowles drive to conserve and plan ahead.

“If you think you can take your foot off the gas pedal for a moment, you just have to look at one of those webcams and realize you have to keep pushing,” he said.

Because the county’s park department is a small operation, Knowles wears “many hats.” That can lead to long hours and a fair bit of stress. At the end of the day, he’d rather be involved in every step of the process than relegated to specialization.

“My time sheet says one thing,” Knowles said when asked how many hours he works. “I’ll be honest I think about this stuff a lot.”

Most important, he’s working with the big picture, dipping into various fields, always learning and doing something new. While the region faces plenty of challenges in the years to come, Knowles believes we’re moving in the right direction.

“I’m just proud of the whole picture that has been coming together,” he said. “I want somebody from out of town to visit Spokane and go to one of our trailheads, hike a trail and just be blown away.”

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