James Whiteside

The Greenway, jewel of Yakima, is getting wonderfully crowded again. No surprise that the surge of users is correlated with the lovely “Palms Springs of Washington”-like weather we’re enjoying.

May we suggest that, on your next sojourn to walk, run, bike, fish, bird watch or just gaze contemplatively at the river’s inexorable flow, you pause and give a nod to James Whiteside, who died last month at 94?

Without Whitehead’s vision, doggedness and political influence, there may not have been a Greenway on which to recreate.

It takes a special type of visionary to see potential where there is blight, and Whiteside was one such man. Way back in the 1970s, the last thing most people would have imagined for the areas along the banks of the Yakima River was a verdant urban recreation area. The place was a dump — literally. There was a garbage dump and gravel mining and a whole lot of swampy blight.

To imagine what would eventually emerge as a winding, 20-mile path, neatly landscaped in parts and left riparian wild in other parts, with parks, play structures and picnic tables along the way, is an achievement. And while there were many contributors on the Yakima Greenway board in its nascent stages, Whiteside was key because he, as a state representative, had the political clout to make it possible.

In 1974, Whiteside sponsored the legislation that funded whether an urban greenway was even feasible and, once that hurdle was cleared, helped prod stakeholders to remove barriers preventing its construction. Later, after winning a seat on the Yakima County Commission, Whiteside made sure the Greenway remained a priority. Upon leaving elective office, he served on the nonprofit Greenway Foundation board for many years, concentrating on fundraising.

As his wife of 70 years, Shirley, said in a May 4 story in the Herald-Republic, Whiteside used the same persuasive powers he employed in Olympia to drum up donors and deal with bureaucratic headaches such as negotiating with “landowners who weren’t going to sell (and mollifying) the naysayers who said it just wouldn’t work.”

What was his motivation?

Think enlightened self-interest. Friends say Whiteside was a firm believer in physical fitness — as a young man, he played basketball in school before serving in the Navy; a little older, he bagged the summits of the Cascade Mountain trifecta, Rainier, Adams and St. Helens — so developing a path that encouraged activity and provided up-close encounters with a riparian habitat fit with his world view.

Those who came to Yakima only in the past few decades may not have been aware of the impact Whiteside had on municipal matters.

There are many important donors and civic leaders whose contributions are memorialized along the Greenway — from Sarg Hubbard Park to the Helen and Bob Poppoff Nature Trail, to the Ted and Bill Robertson Amphitheatre, to the Norman and Nellie Byrd Off-Leash Dog Park — but you won’t stumble upon Whiteside’s name as you ramble.

He was never one for self-aggrandizement, but the Greenway Foundation found a way to honor him in a most fitting way. Officials in 2005 dedicated a sweeping, marshy 140-acre river area south of the pathway’s end around Valley Mall Boulevard as the Jim Whiteside Preserve.

There’s no way to traverse the area by foot, the foundation deciding to leave it in a state of nature. Though bereft of people — except for a few hardy fishermen in boats — the lush area bearing Whiteside’s name teems with nature’s delights, from birds to beavers.

In a way, the protected nature area serves as a remembrance of Yakima’s past — not amberized in some museum, but existing mostly as it was decades, or even centuries, ago.

So, too, should we remember Whiteside’s role in helping to preserve the riverside with smart and sensible stewardship.

• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.