Feature Article - October 2008
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Hit The Trails

Building Active & Vital Communities

By Dana Carman

Train, Bus or Trail?

Levy, who serves as the manager of the Western Public Lands Initiative for the American Hiking Society, can walk a trail to work and does. "My commute could be a frustrating 40-minute drive or it could be a relaxing hour and 15-minute hike through a park," he said.

Stuart McDonald, Web site manager for American Trails, a leading trails advocacy organization, and editor of its magazine, feels that there is a lot of interest in the idea of livable cities and communities, where the desire isn't simply to attain the cheapest house with the maximum square footage, but a lifestyle, including a less car-oriented lifestyle. "Where kids can walk to school," he said. And where communities are tied together via trail, not just for health, though that is a part of it, but to get somewhere else.

Portland is on the forefront of the alternative transportation movement, Cumming said. It is one of several communities working hard toward being a community designated for specific transportation federal funding through a program called the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, which is a part of the Federal Transportation Bill. The bill is up for reauthorization in 2009, and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is leading a lobbying effort to expand the program, which provided $25 million in funding to four pilot communities to invest in active transportation infrastructure (such as rail-trails) and supporting programs to increase transportation choices. The RTC's 2010 Campaign for Active Transportation aims to "empower dozens of communities to each advocate for $50 million in federal funds to make focused investments in infrastructure and programs to shift automobile trips to walking and biking."

McDonald specifically mentioned kids walking to school because, well, they just don't as much anymore. The Safe Routes to School program is also funded by the Federal Transportation Bill through 2009 and makes money available to states to help schools fund infrastructure and programs to actively encourage more kids to walk and bike to school.

Of course, a program can only be as good as its funding, and with the current economic conditions, funding everywhere is tight. If federal funds become less available, so do state and local funds. In recent years, the Recreational Trails Program (RTP), which is administered by the Federal Highway Administration and allocates funds to the states, has seen a decline in funding amount. It's not just the programs, either. "Funding for our nation's federal land management agencies have come under assault," Levy said. "We're looking at massive cuts to the budgets of the agencies that are entrusted with the duty to maintain safe and enjoyable access to America's most special places." Levy noted that the American Hiking Society "sees and has always seen hiking as a nonpartisan issue," but "the current administration's policy has not emphasized access to trails for hikers."

For Potts, the current economic and environmental situation shaping our future is why he lives in Washington, D.C., when his heart is on his ranch in Montana. "We have to engage communities and the public and invest them in ownership of these lands to a far greater depth [than ever before]," he said. Levy said that the American Hiking Society is stepping up its volunteer efforts to go out and protect the trails through its Volunteer Vacations Program.

Trails ensure our children will grow up with the nature we enjoyed. They ensure that communities will continue to flourish together. They provide health benefits to older citizens who are staying active longer. They wind through our towns and educate us. They allow us to park our cars and do our part for the environment and ourselves. Trails are the heart of our country and in order to keep it beating, like our own, we must continually be aware that we are in danger of losing it if we don't do what's best for it.

National Trails Symposium

The National Trails Symposium will be held Nov. 15-18 in Little Rock, Ark., and provides an opportunity for the worldwide trails community to come together. Registration and details can be found at www.americantrails.org/2008/index.html.