Grad Student Spotlight: Laura Cooper

When Laura Cooper moved from Pittsburgh to Seattle about eight years ago, she was eager for a change of scenery—a better mix of city and nature, skyscrapers and sky. “I was looking for a city on the coast,” she says, “and I was attracted to the idea that in Seattle you could be on a boat and then go skiing later that same day.”

A few years after she arrived, though, the economy collapsed in 2008. Cooper had been working as architect for 13 years at that point, but she suddenly found herself out of work and seriously questioning her career future.

Laura Cooper

After 13 years as an architect and suddenly out of work, Laura Cooper started exploring a career change and options for graduate study–which led to a fortuitous visit with Professor Gordon Bradley at SEFS.

While unemployed and weighing a return to school, she started thinking about sustainability, urban planning and landscape architecture, and she was especially drawn to the interface between the built and natural environments. But when she started looking at schools for graduate study, she had a sense the design community wasn’t adequately grounded in ecology. She began hunting for a more interdisciplinary program where she could learn the basic concepts and language of ecology, yet also marry that background with her own experience and interest in planning.

While scouting the University of Washington (UW), one of the first people she met was Professor Gordon Bradley at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). He outlined the social sciences element of the SEFS curriculum, that she could explore urban planning and also have the freedom to learn about ecosystem management.

The timing of her visit couldn’t have been better.

SEFS and Professor Bradley have a long-standing relationship and partnership with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR). And around the time Cooper was considering UW, Doug McLelland, assistant region manager for the South Puget Sound Region (and an alumnus of SEFS), had reached out to Bradley to see whether he had a graduate student who could coordinate a large-scale planning project. McClelland needed someone to facilitate the planning process for the new 53,000-acre Snoqualmie Corridor Recreation Planning Area, which stretches along Interstate 90 heading west from Seattle.

Bradley pitched the idea to Cooper, and she was sold.

It sounded like a perfect match. She’d get immersive training in sustainability planning, and also in the public planning process itself. She’d gain experience in ecosystem management and working with multiple state partners and agencies, as well as a citizen advisory committee. Plus, there was the added benefit of familiarity and contributing to a local project. “I’d be working on a landscape I already cared about,” she says.

Cooper soon enrolled as a graduate student with Bradley and began sizing up the scope of the work at hand.

The Snoqualmie Corridor Recreation Planning Area

A Planner’s Pot of Gold

The project involved creating a recreation management plan for DNR-managed lands in the Snoqualmie Corridor near North Bend, Issaquah and Snoqualmie that would guide how DNR manages recreation for the next 10 to 15 years. The planning area is situated in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains and includes well-known destinations such as Mount Si, Mailbox Peak, the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River Valley, Tiger Mountain and Rattlesnake Ridge (a few of Bradley’s previous graduate students had helped facilitate similar recreation plans in this area).

Because the DNR lands form part of a continuous landscape of public lands—including Taylor Mountain, Grand Ridge and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, among others—part of the goal was to look for opportunities to connect the landscapes together and improve access to local communities so that people wouldn’t always need to get into their car to get to the forest.

Planning in such an expansive landscape is challenging because it involves a number of different types of DNR-managed lands: working forests or state trust lands that provide revenue for schools, universities and other public institutions; natural resources conservation areas (NRCAs) that conserve scenic landscapes, outstanding examples of native ecosystems and habitat for threatened and endangered species; and small isolated blocks of rural forest lands surrounded by rural residences. All of these landscapes provide opportunities for recreation, and the plan needed to take these multiple goals and contexts into consideration.

Laura Cooper

The Middle Fork Valley, recently designated an NRCA, was one of the areas that needed a new recreation plan (also not a terrible place to be exploring!).

The DNR has fine-tuned a process for gathering citizen input and developing recreation plans, says Cooper, and she felt fortunate to have such a proven system already in place. They have recommendations and guidelines for all aspects of the planning process, including how to involve the public, how to conduct a meeting, and how to solicit constructive feedback and address sensitive subjects. They also draw on the strength of a dynamic internal staff of planners, foresters, naturalists, cartographers and scientists. At the same time, this project represented a massive new undertaking, and it all started with harnessing the ideas and buy-in of diverse communities along the corridor.

The process kicked off with a big public meeting at Snoqualmie Middle School back in February 2012. Cooper says there was tremendous energy in the room. After listening to a 30-minute presentation, attendees were able to visit different stations with maps of the various landscapes and ask questions and say what they would like to see—and then they could actually draw their ideas on the maps.

At the meeting, a group of invested residents and other interested parties filled out cards to be considered for a citizen planning committee. The DNR ended up selecting 17 members, who would then be dedicating more than a year of their time for monthly meetings. “That’s where the real planning happens,” says Cooper, and her role would be to help facilitate those meetings and keep the process moving, making sure everyone’s voice was heard and included, and basically hold all the pieces together.

Marching Orders

The process was perfectly timed with the seasons. Starting in March, the first few months of committee meetings were held indoors. Members learned about the planning area, DNR’s mission and different types of recreation, and studied suitability maps that identified sensitive areas based on biological, geological, soil and management criteria.

Laura Cooper

Cooper and her “big red truck,” which she rumbled all over the 53,000-acre corridor.

Some of the landscapes already had existing management plans that needed to be updated, while others needed new plans. The Middle Fork Snoqualmie block was recently designated an NRCA and needed a new management plan, and the Raging River State Forest was recently acquired and did not have any established trail systems in place—representing a tremendous opportunity to be part of the first team to develop a recreation plan for it.

All the background work was completed in time for a summer of field trips. In May, Cooper started scheduling field trips to explore the 53,000-acre planning area, and throughout that summer she organized roughly 23 excursions. “That was probably the most fun of all of it,” says Cooper, “and the best part is they gave me a big red truck to drive around, and the keys to all the logging roads.”

Cooper’s crews scoured the territory and imagined a range of possibilities: identifying views, finding connections and looking for areas that would be good for river access, picnicking and different types of recreation and experiences (such as environmental education, hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking or equestrian paths). They found a little waterfall that had been written about by Harvey Manning, an environmental activist and author of many hiking guides. They even explored the site of an old abandoned logging town, finding remnants of saws, boilers, kitchen equipment and glass bottles.

After a summer of exploration, it was time for the team to sit down and start drafting proposals. Cooper had prepared a survey that was administered in August to gain further public input, and she incorporated those results into their field research. In September, the committee started brainstorming and drawing ideas on maps. In these proposals, says Cooper, they were blocking out areas for different recreational uses, identifying key connections and access points. After several iterations, working through a number of alternatives during the course of several planning meetings, the committee successfully closed out the year in December with a final preferred version, known as Concept F.

Laura Cooper

One of the great takeaways for Cooper–in addition to gaining invaluable experience with the planning process–was discovering incredible natural areas so close to Seattle.

In January, Cooper began wrapping up the entire process, taming and analyzing a beastly set of data and surveys, and enough maps to give a seasoned cartographer panic sweats. She emerged from the maelstrom with a detailed document and concept maps for the recreation plan, which she and McClelland are presenting back to the committee this month, and later to the public for final review and comment.

After that, implementation could start as early as this fall. Cooper is excited to see the concepts she and her committee put together take real shape in the coming years—to see trails get designed and built, and eventually see people out trekking the same paths she helped envision and blaze. One of the amazing takeaways for Cooper, after all, was getting to discover some incredibly beautiful natural areas within about 45 minutes from Seattle. They’re so easy to reach, and this recreation plan will soon open up new territory for countless others to enjoy and explore.

Another more immediate payoff after completing this plan, of course, is that Cooper will be wrapping up her Master’s Degree here at SEFS. She’s defending her thesis on Friday, June 7, so you can come out and see the fruits of her academic labors—on a different project, interviewing family forest owners about how they approach their land—in person at 10 a.m. in Anderson 22!

Photos © Laura Cooper.