Continental Divide Trail Defends Creative Funding
Trail "Ads" Raise Questions
By Steven Wilmsen, Denver Post Staff Writer
The Continental Divide Trail, spanning 3,100 miles along the spine of the Rocky Mountains, is meant to be one of the nation's great hiking routes. Conceived in the vein of the famous Appalachian Trail and the somewhat lesser known Pacific Crest Trail, its builders wanted it to have the same venerable reputation.
But there is at least one small difference: advertising.
Unlike its historic predecessors, built three-quarters of a century ago, the Continental Divide Trail is getting large donations from business to complete the project. In return, businesses get to put their corporate logos on signs at trailheads along the way.
It's a small concession, trail sponsors said, in an era when federal money for such endeavors is drying up and agencies like the U.S. Forest Service have neither the time nor the people to complete so large a project themselves.
"You have to look at the alternative, which might be no trail at all," said Bruce Ward, president of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance, a non-profit group he and his wife, Paula, formed in 1995 to jump-start what seemed to them a moribund project.
"If we want to do this, there are certain compromises that have to be made. The companies get to put up a logo and a phrase. We get a nice trail that might not have been there otherwise. I think that's an acceptable payback. It's not like we're talking about neon signs along the trail."
The corporate logos will be confined to the hundreds of trailheads that connect with the Continental Divide Trail, according to an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, and they can't be bigger than the Forest Service's own seal. Still, some worry about what the arrangement will do to the hiking experience and what it says about American culture.
"Part of the value of a national scenic trail is being free of commercial interests," said Jim Wolf, whose Baltimore-based Continental Divide Trail Society has clashed with Ward's group over corporate sponsorship. Wolf formed his group years before Ward started up. And while the society continues to offer advice on how the trail should be completed, the purist ideals are more often at odds with Ward's group. "There are not too many places left in our world that are not commercialized," Wolf said. "It's important not to lose that."
The Continental Divide Trail, loosely drawn by Congress in 1978, runs from Canada to Mexico through 25 national forests, 12 wilderness areas, three national parks and eight districts of the Bureau of Land Management; 759 miles of the trail pass through Colorado.
Its backers envisioned a geographic monument like the Appalachian Trail, the venerable route through the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia. Since that trail's completion in 1937, it has acquired a diehard following of volunteers who largely recoil at the idea of corporate sponsorship.
"There is a strong feeling that public lands belong to all citizens and that all citizens equally have a sense of stewardship and responsibility for that land," said Rob Burbank, a spokesman for the Appalachian Mountain Club, whose 7,200 volunteer members help maintain 350 miles of the Appalachian Trail. "To have a corporate entity represented might, for some people, diminish that ethic."
Still, Ward says, progress on the Continental Divide trail was painfully slow until his group got involved. For a decade and a half, the Forest Service worked only sporadically on establishing the route, he said. About 70 percent of it now has some kind of trail, though parts are on country roads and cross private land. One-third of the trail, roughly 1,000 miles in New Mexico and Wyoming, is nothing more than wishful thinking. "They kept a pretty low profile until we came onto the scene," he said of the Forest Service.
He claims the project has now gained momentum, catching national attention and spurring the Forest Service into action. Lobbying efforts increased federal funding from $250,000 to $500,000. Later this summer, volunteers assembled by the group will survey the trail to gather information about its condition.
Now, Ward said, "our goal is to raise money" Already, the group has received donations from 30 companies, including Seattle-based Recreational Equipment Inc., L.L. Bean, Eastern Mountain Sports and Amgen, the Boulder pharmaceutical company.
Ward said the money will pay for work that in another time would have been done by the government: environmental impact studies, rerouting the trail to avoid erosion problems and negotiating rights-of-way across private land. In addition, Ward's group will lobby Congress and pump out a steady stream of publicity.
"Awareness is extremely important," he said. "Visibility gets action. If nobody asks about it for 20 years, nothing's going to get done." It is a '90s-type strategy that grates on purists like Wolf, who founded his Continental Divide Trail Society in 1978 and finds himself approaching trail issues "from a much different point of view."
"I would love to do this just like the Appalachian Trail," Ward said. "It is a great model, the model. But the Appalachian has been around for 70 years. It's not the reality of the world we live in. The world now is a whole lot different than it was."
For more information on funding and improvements for the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, contact Bruce Ward, Continental Divide Trail Alliance, P O BOX 628, Pine CO 80470 (303) 275-5058. For guidebooks and maps of the trail, contact Jim Wolf, Continental Divide Trail Society, 3704 N Charles #601, Baltimore MD 21218 (410) 235-9610.
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Updated March 16, 2007