261 views • posted 04/03/2023 • updated 04/17/2023
This award is for an individual that, like previous board member and trail advocate Hulet Hornbeck, exemplifies long-standing vision and wisdom in support of trails.
Janet Phillips was no stranger to the complexity of water politics in the West. She toiled for years on heated issues involving the Truckee River.
The Tour du Mont Blanc, Camino de Santiago, Appalachian Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail – all began with a question, a need, a dream, and great determination. Why not? What if? Imagine this...? How? Let us now consider the case of the Tahoe Pyramid Trail, beginning near the crystalline shores of Lake Tahoe, traveling 114 miles to the terminus of the Truckee River in Pyramid Lake. In 2003, a visionary leader, undaunted by the enormity of the task ahead, asked herself, “Why not, and how can we do this?”
Janet Phillips was no stranger to the complexity of water politics in the West. She toiled for years on heated issues involving the Truckee River, the main water source for communities stretching from Lake Tahoe downriver through Reno/Sparks, Nevada, diverted to the south to serve the farming community of Fallon, Nevada, traveling northeast through the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, and to its final rest in the mystic waters of Pyramid Lake.
Janet was a realist. No one would call her naïve. The Truckee River is the lifeblood of people, plants, animals, fish, farms, and the overall economies of diverse regions. She began to visualize the steps needed to work through a myriad of issues driven by a fundamental question: “Why has the beauty of this river been largely ignored in terms of a built trail that gives people the access to travel its shores?” Adventure trails like this exist in communities throughout the world. They become drivers of outdoor recreation, healthy lifestyles, tourism, and economic vitality. They transform the way people view a place. People who recreate on hiking and biking trails become stewards of these paths and everything that lies along them.
And so that vision exploded in the mind and heart of Janet Phillips. As she clearly saw what could be, like any visionary leader, she began to verbalize and share her idea. Janet knew the players. In all its complexity, she began to unravel the maze of ownership, rights of way, river access, environmental concerns, flora, fauna, funding, and good old-fashioned engineering. Yes, Janet was a Stanford grad, trained in civil engineering, and she possessed an engineer’s right brain. This task, this trail, this puzzle simply needed constructing piece by piece.
Thus, she began to have meaningful conversations about the possibility of a Tahoe to Pyramid Lake trail. Janet was able to lay the groundwork for a compelling scenario in the minds of people who knew and trusted her. She worked with organizations that some regard as immovable objects. Electric and water utilities. California and Nevada departments of transportation, fish and wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, the railroad, local governments and community leaders, private landowners, the Paiute tribe, ranchers, environmental groups, and legal experts.
Initially, Janet thought this adventure trail would take about five years to complete. Call that unbridled optimism. Twenty years later the Tahoe Pyramid Trail is a respectable 81% complete. This feat of engineering, knowhow, willpower, and determination was driven by Janet’s vision, and brought to fruition through the hard work of a dedicated Board of Directors and numerous volunteers and partners along the 114-mile route. Janet inspired people to put politics and self-interest aside to make the vision of this trail a reality. Throughout the 20 years of carefully piecing together the critical steps to the completion of the Tahoe Pyramid Trail, some Herculean tasks remain. A few intransigent objects stand in the way of full buildout. These are the next goals, the final eastern push on the path to completion.
Janet Phillips passed away after a two-year battle with cancer on December 28, 2022. She worked until the very last days of her life on the trail that became her life’s work. Her final act was laying the groundwork for the succession of the nonprofit organization she led for 20 years, without financial remuneration and as a strictly volunteer effort. She leaves behind an organization that is financially healthy, goal oriented, well organized, and led by a committed group of individuals who are well trained and ready to accomplish what needs to be done next.
Awards, accolades, and recognition followed Janet throughout this effort. This was her paycheck. The “trails” world and even local communities bestowed these awards on Janet as a tribute to the persistence, commitment, dogged determination, and brilliance of her efforts to build out the Tahoe Pyramid Trail.
Which brings us to today and this posthumous recognition, the Hulet Hornbeck Lifetime Service Award. This distinguished award is a final reward for Janet’s life dedicated to her audacious vision. Janet shares this award with the hundreds of people who have assisted her along the way. Especially with her husband Mike, who predeceased her but never wavered in his support and commitment to the trail and to Janet. With her example of hard work and determination she inspired many. She leaves behind a lifetime achievement of a trail enjoyed by thousands.
Walk along the shores of the Truckee River as it meanders through the canyons and urban and rural landscapes between Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake, and you will hear the river sing of the life and legacy of this remarkable woman, Janet Phillips.
(Photo credit: Calvert Photography)
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