The Diverse & Transformative Power of Trails
"42" may have been The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's answer to the question about life, the universe and everything. But in 2022 that answer could easily be "trails." No longer just a scenic way to get from point A to point B, the humble community trail has turned into a seeming cure-all for what ails much of our nation today. From mowed meadow paths and paved bikeways to wetland boardwalks and scrappy mountain bike singletracks, trails have become a strategic tool communities are using to transform their economies, ecology and quality of life.
It has been the perfect storm, really. Record-breaking public enthusiasm for biking, hiking and all-things-outdoors since the pandemic began has certainly played a big role. As a result, the number of new trails is up 36% since 2019, according to the 2021 National Trail Count from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. But timely innovations have also played a role with bike design and mobility devices that have expanded seasonal use and user demographics. Sales are booming for pedal-assist e-bikes for seniors and the mobility-challenged, smaller mountain bikes catering to young children, and electric one-wheel skateboards popular with millennials and Gen Z. (To say nothing of fat-tire biking and studded tires that allow cyclists to also enjoy winter wonderlands.)
"The diversity of folks using trails is a big trend," said David Patton, vice president for the Pacific region and Northwest area director for the Trust for Public Land (TPL). "Ten years ago, you either had hard-core commuter bikers or hard-core mountain bikers and some casual users, but we are seeing a lot more casual bikers and/or people just out with families on a nice day. People are weary of riding on streets, so building amenities for non-traditional bikers and using them for recreation is big."
Money Over Matter
In response to these many changes, the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has allocated an estimated $11 billion dollars for trails, bike lanes and multi-use paths to fund new projects or upgrade existing ones. States like Indiana, which announced in March that it is investing $30 million for trail projects, are also getting on board, convinced of the strong economic, social and health benefits trails provide. Thankfully, there are many nonprofits and organizations that are more than happy to help communities navigate land acquisition, grant writing, fundraising and trail planning.
"One of the biggest things right now is about being prepared," said Liz Thorstensen, vice president of trail development for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. "Whether rural or urban. Be ready to grab the funding, which really is about having a vision for trail network systems so when funding keeps coming, you are ready to access it."
In addition to communities now hiring more staff to be able to do the planning work necessary, many projects are successfully financed by casting a broad financial net, often a combination of grants, fundraising, donations and even timber harvesting and utilization of carbon credits to make these projects affordable, sustainable and maintainable.
Although trails these days come in many shapes and sizes, for many of them "connectivity" is the name of the game. Whether it is creating an ambitious trans-national bike trail, connecting coast to coast, as in the Great American Rail-Trail project (now 53% complete); building easy-access trails connecting residential areas to nearby recreational trails; or connecting existing trails from town to town to create a networked long-distance tourist attraction, connectivity is trending hard. Case in point: The nation's longest rail-trail, the 240-mile Katy Trail in central Missouri, just achieved another historic railbanking milestone with the purchase of the 144-mile Rock Island Corridor, extending the Katy Trail even further.
Long-distance biking is also growing thanks to the proliferation of e-bikes among an older demographic. Discovering the game-changing freedom a little pedal assistance can bring, they are excited to return to an activity they thought was no longer available to them (and contributing to sales reportedly up by 47% according to the NDP Group). With trails networking across entire states like the Cross Vermont and Cross New Hampshire Adventure trails, e-bikes (especially Class I and Class II) that utilize pedal assist mechanisms are enabling more people to go farther and enjoy more varied terrain than ever before.
"The demand for outdoor recreation trails for walking, biking and accessing recreation may have spiked during COVID, but it is continuing. Mayors have concluded it isn't just a nice thing to have. It is an essential part of a community," Thorstensen said, referencing a 2021 University of Boston survey.
Betsy Cook, Maine state program director with TPL, agreed, adding that "ultimately trails are about creating healthier communities. It's a huge benefit to mental health, but the economic piece is also enormous. It's not just rural areas. It can be a trail in Portland where someone's visiting and buying coffee."
A lot of people are starting to connect the dots.
Into the Woods
Trails are also playing an important role in preserving the rapidly disappearing forests of New England, losing an estimated 65 acres of forest per day according to a 2017 Harvard University Study. Community forests with their integrated trail systems, the brain-child of the Trust for Public Land, have been an effective solution for many communities out east but are becoming popular in western states and midwestern states as well. After purchasing adjacent land to be owned and managed by each local town or city, a community not only preserves that forested landscape for generations to come, but also reaps remarkable benefits like protecting water sources, preserving wildlife and especially enjoying trails as part of that bigger vision.
"At the heart of the idea of community forests is multiple use," said David Montague, president and CEO of the Downeast Lakes Land Trust in Grand Lake Stream, Maine, whose 100 or so year-round residents manage 57,000 acres (and growing), one of the biggest community forests in the nation. With a motto of "forests and lakes for people forever," the traditionally hook-and-bullet-tourism-based community has broadened its appeal with trails for snowmobiling, ATV-ing, hiking, biking, mountain biking and more.
"Twenty years later we are $60 million further along than the $280,000 originally predicted from the feasibility study," said Montague. "It has exceeded everyone's expectations. It's been a great success from our perspective."
Trailing the Economic Impact
For Meredith, N.H., trails also linked to downtown have been a part of their successful formula.
"Meredith is on Lake Winnepesaukee, a huge tourist destination," said J.T. Horn, National Trails initiative director with TPL. "But the town wanted to create more trails in the community so that when folks come, they will spend an extra day and night in a hotel or B&B or eat a meal at local restaurants, and it's working. The lakes region is thriving and growing in part because trails are one of the things that make it more special."
Hanover, N.H., another small community that is home to Dartmouth College and a thoroughfare of the Appalachian Trail, has also invested in trail building as part of a much bigger plan. Over the years the town has purchased and preserved land in an effort to create a greenbelt that encircles the downtown core to provide convenient access to outdoor recreation for everyone while still protecting wildlife corridors and endangered species.
However, their latest trail project, the Mink Brook Community Forest, a 250-acre mixture of preserved floodplain meadow and upland forest, is also being used as a strategic incentive to draw new residents to a 5-acre outcropping where much-needed affordable workforce housing will be located within a short walk. "We're pretty excited," said Robert Houseman, director of planning, zoning and codes for the town. "When we look at our recreational wants and needs for conservation and housing, this ticks all the right boxes."
Climb Every Mountain
Any trail trend story for 2022 would be incomplete without a vigorous nod to mountain biking. In a recent Forbes interview with David Wiens, executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), Wiens said that families are mountain biking like never before with sales of mountain bikes going through the roof.
No longer limited to just mountainous terrain, forward-thinking cities like Sioux City, Iowa, are getting in on the action with plans to break ground on a multi-million dollar 9-mile mountain bike trail by spring of 2023. The project, which will be designed with different gradients and widths and surface types to attract all levels of users, will also be as inclusive as possible, thanks to top-notch design input from IMBA, one the project's biggest partners.
The trail system was received with such strong community support that full funding (including a $1 million donation) was achieved in short order. The project, which will be integrated into Cone Park, a popular multipurpose recreation area, will benefit from existing amenities like parking, concessions, bathrooms and much, much more.
"It will have a tot track, pump track and jump line and all sorts of features for inclusivity," said John Byrnes, recreation supervisor for Sioux City Parks and Recreation. "We are just blown away by community involvement. It will be a regional attraction since there's not much between us and Colorado and will bring tourism and a huge net positive impact on the community and local population as well."
Byrnes attributed much of the community's enthusiasm to partnering with IMBA and their effective communication with the public including an IMBA video that showcased the vision of the project. "I write a lot of grants," said Angel Wallace, parks and recreation manager. "And imagery is the most important. You have to have your advocates and cheerleaders be spokespersons, explaining the main objectives and who benefits."
And these days, trails are benefiting our communities and environments more than ever before. RM