Hit The Trails

Building Active & Vital Communities

By Dana Carman


ith the price of gas forcing all of us to rethink our current modes of transportation, now is the perfect time to be advocating for trails and greenways. Beyond their use as a pathway for transport, they connect communities; integrate people, and especially kids, with nature; and encourage physical activity.

Of course, none of this comes as any surprise to recreation professionals, but in an age where digital options are attracting more attention than the outdoors and obesity is a national health crisis, it's important to reiterate the significance of trails and greenways.

Several national agencies have created programs to promote trail usage as well as resources to support smaller organizations' efforts in creating and maintaining trails. Developers of new housing have seen the dirt on the trail, so to speak, and are, with increasing frequency, incorporating trails into communities as they are recognized not only as an asset to residents, but as a financial one as well. There is among those most involved in the movement to advance trail development and usage a sense of urgency. While much progress has been made, there is still work to be done, especially in the current economic and environmental climate. Therein lies the mission—and a trail runs through it.

Trail Connections

"Trails are the connections that lead people on that first step to becoming stewards of the land," said Rick Potts, chief of the Conservation and Recreation Division of the National Park Service. "They provide that threshold opportunity to get outside and start to explore and start to learn. When you put in a trail, you start to bring stakeholders from different walks of life. You have the hikers, the bikers, equestrians, dog walkers, bird watchers. They may not interact normally in society, but when it comes to the love of trail, they'll come together. Partnerships are essential for our society. They provide us opportunities on many levels for a better and more healthy society."

Speaking of healthy, the obvious benefit of trails is improved health. "The nice thing about trails is everybody can use them," said Bill Bussey, superintendent for Chatham County Parks and Recreation in North Carolina. "We need to be more active as a society and [walking] is the easiest thing to do."

Seth Levy of the American Hiking Society pointed out that hiking is "one of the easiest, least expensive and most accessible anecdotes to a sedentary lifestyle." He also noted that "it's accessible to diverse populations, to different levels of mobility and to those with different socioeconomic backgrounds."

There are, as we know, numerous advantages to an active lifestyle, some more evident, such as weight management, and others less so, but nonetheless incredibly important, such as stress relief and improved sleep. Not to mention fresh air, vitamin D and a cure for nature deficit disorder. "We're looking at real, definite benefits of walking in a natural setting," Levy said.

A Soft Surface

While most trails rely on natural surfaces, like wood chips, gravel or simply dirt, some high-traffic areas may want to look into new options made from recycled tire rubber. One manufacturer boasts their recycled-rubber trail surface is virtually maintenance-free and easier on the knees of exercisers than some alternatives. Similar to a track surface, it is available in 20 different shades and allows the free flow of water. It's slip-resistant, and while more costly than asphalt or concrete, it will hold up for more than a decade. Also, it can earn LEED credits from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Partners in Trails

As Potts explained, partnerships are vital for society. That's also true of trails. One example is the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) Program of the National Park Service, which works with many types of partners—nonprofits, community groups, tribal governments, government agencies on all levels—to provide tailored assistance on a wide variety of conservation and recreation projects. The program does not provide grants but acts as a catalyst to assist a partner in collecting the necessary pieces to meet their conservation goal.

"The RTCA is primarily a technical assistance provider," Potts said. "Everything we do is by invitation. We are very respectful that these are all local projects. This is us being invited to a community by interested stakeholders."

The projects run the gamut, Potts said, but added that many of them serve multiple conservation efforts and purposes. For example, the removal of the Milltown Dam in Missoula, Mont., as well as the contaminated sediment behind it, will allow the free-flowing confluence of the Clark Fork and Bigfoot rivers for the first time in 100 years, will eliminate water pollution, end fish kills, rid the area of an unsafe dam and improve the local economy. Digging down a little deeper into just one area of benefit, the bull trout, which travels upstream to spawn was being blocked by the dam. According to Potts, within weeks of breaching the dam in March, the bull trout were able to return to their migratory patterns. It both cleaned up a polluted area and restored a natural habitat, which reverberates through both the ecological and economic chains.

Another project serving dual goals is the Medical Mile in Little Rock, Ark., which was completed with the unanimous support of two dozen physicians with Arkansas' largest cardiology clinic who raised $350,000 over two years.

"It's a wonderful example of the healthcare community becoming involved," Potts said. The Medical Mile is one part of the Arkansas River Trail but is hailed in the trails community as a sign of the tangible commitment these physicians have toward promoting better health through fitness.

"They realize by the time a patient comes under the scalpel, they have failed, we all have failed," Potts said. "They're attacking the problem from the root cause."

Due to budget constraints, Potts said there are about 80 conservation projects in the works, but in any given year the RTCA partners on 200 to 300 such endeavors. "For every dollar we invest, we get $8 to $10 of return," he said. "I might be a little biased, but when I look at this program, I feel really good about it as far as the money's worth."

In North Carolina, the American Tobacco Trail (ATT) is a 22-plus-mile rails-to-trails project located in the Triangle Region and crossing through Durham; Chatham, Durham and Wake counties; the planning jurisdictions of the towns of Carey and Apex; and the Lake Jordan project land of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Bussey, as part of Triangle Trails Rails to Trails Conservancy, a volunteer advocacy group, said that when the ATT was constructed it was the only regional project going on in the Triangle except for the airport, bringing together many different planners, staff and government organizations. Each area is responsible for its part of the construction, but along the way there have been additional partnerships, such as Chatham County partnering with Wake County to do some engineering studies.

Portland Trails in Maine works with many different partners, such as city planners, developers, health organizations, schools and communities, to continue working toward its goal of 50 miles of trails. Executive Director Nan Cumming said these partnerships are mutually beneficial, and Portland Trails also counts numerous local businesses and residents among its supporters in large part because the 32 miles of trails at present "…ranks really highly with young professionals as what they want in their communities," Cumming said. "It attracts good employees to a lot of the businesses and brings in more people who want to settle here."

While each example of partnership differs slightly, what's worth noting is that when it comes to trails, various types of groups and organizations share a stake, from schools to insurance companies. Each member of any given community should be aware of trails' impact.

Paddle Away

Perhaps less commonly thought of when discussing trails but trails nonetheless are water trails. The American Canoe Association (ACA) maintains a database of water trails in the United States. Paul Sanford, director of Stewardship and Public Policy with the ACA, said there are more than 400 water trails nationally and the ACA's database lists about 90 percent of them.

One such trail is the Alabama Scenic Water Trail, a 631-mile trail in Alabama. "It is the longest water trail in any one state," said Thornton Clark, vice president. Clark said the trail was the brainchild of Fred Couch. There are campgrounds along the way as it follows seven rivers and two creeks through a wide variety of beautiful scenery. Clark characterizes the trail as flat water and easily paddled with the exception of six miles where there are three very brief stretches of white water, which he says can be paddled by an intermediate paddler. To date, many sections of the trail have been paddled but no one has done the whole thing. The first to do so will receive The 631 Prize, including $1,000. At press time, paddlers were not allowed to start before Oct. 1 and had to resister on the Web site at www.alabamascenicrivertrail.com. More information on the trail is also available on the Web site. To access the American Canoe Association's water trails database, visit www.americancanoe.org.

East Coast Greenway

The East Coast Greenway is likened to the "urban Appalachian Trail," said Tanja Wiant, communications coordinator for the East Coast Greenway Alliance. The goal is to connect cities and towns of the east coast with a continuous, traffic-free path. Currently, 20 percent of the goal is accomplished, though a complete route is mapped out. Wiant said the route is continually changing to accommodate off-road trail as it is built and also to shift the current route to be as safe as possible. At present, the route does include some road sections, but there are as few busy roads as possible. To date, about 10 people have completed the Greenway by bike, Wiant said. She also stressed that because parts of the trail do follow roads with traffic, the undertaking is not for a novice cyclist but for those comfortable pedaling. Currently there's another 20 percent of the route in development and detailed mapping information can be found on the Web site: www.greenway.org.

Making Cents of Trails

Partnerships in trail building, maintenance and restoration makes a lot of good sense (and cents), but as Cumming explained, trails themselves are an economic benefit and therefore should be an easier sell when budgets are being drafted (one can hope).

For this reason, more and more developers have gotten the message and are incorporating trails into the communities they're building. "We're looking at these becoming concrete indicators of a high quality of life," Levy said of trails. "And it's so clear in the mind of a person looking to move that they have registered with realtors and developers as real commodities."

Randy Martin, president of Trailscape, which promotes, designs and builds natural-surface trails for developers, determined based on an analysis of a survey of realtors and clients that there's a 3 percent increase in residual value if the community has a significant trail system over not having one. Additionally, in an amenity comparison, the cost difference between incorporating a trail or installing a golf course or swimming pool in a community is huge (not to mention trails are more favored). The cost of a natural trail per mile is about $40,000 whereas his estimates are $500,000 per hole on a golf course and $1 million for a swimming pool.

The key with a natural surface trail is designing it properly because an improperly designed trail loses its benefits quickly. Drainage is key, which is why trails professionals like Martin are also. With a properly designed and implemented trail, Martin said that developers can count on a higher likelihood that they can sell homes at an accelerated pace. More, trails are incentive for residents to stay put, which creates less supply.

In addition to touting the bottom line, Martin is an advocate of having outlets to connect adults and children to nature and interact with each other as the economics and the rewards go hand and hand—through the woods.

Some of the programs available for trails:
National Recreation Trails Program

The National Recreation Trails (NRT) program is spearheaded by American Trails in conjunction with the National Park Service, the USDA Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The program paves the path for local and regional trails to be designated as NRTs and part of the National Trail System.

The National Trail System, which turned 40 in 2008, comprises 200,000 miles of National Recreation Trails, National Scenic Trails and National Historic Trails. The latter two may be designated only by an act of Congress, while NRTs can be designated by the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture. Trails designated as NRTs are supported by the NRT program, which provides promotion, technical assistance, networking and access to funding. According to American Trails, the program's goal "is to promote the use and care of existing trails and stimulate the development of new trails to create a national network of trails and realize the vision of 'Trails for All Americans.'"

This year, 24 new NRTs were designated by Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne just prior to National Trails Day on June 7. These trails joined more than 1,000 others encompassing more than 12,000 miles of National Recreation Trails. American Trails maintains an online, searchable database of these trails as well as information on how trails may be nominated for NRT designation. For more information, visit www.americantrails.org.

National Trails Day

National Trails Day is the signature trails awareness program of the American Hiking Society, which "works to protect trails and promote the hiking experience," said Seth Levy, manager of the Western Public Lands Initiative with the American Hiking Society. The program is a celebration of trails that introduces people to trails, thanks the many volunteers and organizations that contribute to the health of trails, and raises awareness for trails. Generally held the first Saturday in June, there were more than 1,100 registered National Trails Day events in 2007. On the organization's Web site are several resources to enable you to host your own National Trails Day events at www.americanhiking.org.

Volunteer Vacations

How great is it when you can visit a beautiful place, enjoy hiking and do your part to help trails? The American Hiking Society offers Volunteer Vacations to do just that. There are 70 trips a year of every level challenge, Levy said. They'll take you to some of the most interesting places you may ever see. Levy detailed watching orcas frolicking in the sunset off the coast of California on his last excursion with Volunteer Vacations. For more information, visit www.americanhiking.org.

Rivers, Trails, & Conservation Assistance Program

This assistance program has contributed to the protection of more than 700 miles of rivers, the creation of over 1,400 miles of trails and conserved more than 63,700 acres of open space through its partnerships. The RTCA does not provide grants but does facilitate the necessary steps and elements to assist local organizations with their conservation efforts. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/ncrc/programs/rtca/.

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.

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