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arrow From the Fall 2009 issue of American Trails Magazine


Our mission: creating a great future

THIS PAST AUGUST MY WIFE, SALLY, and our old black lab, Stan, set out on a for-real backpacking trip. Not car camping or a day hike, but the real deal: four days with tents, sleeping bags, and freeze-dried food in the Lost Creek Wilderness Area, a beautiful, unspoiled, preserve not far from Denver.

photo of kids on water buffalo

Sally and Stan on the trail

I wondered if we still could make it, hiking eight miles in with packs fully loaded. With Stan over sixty (in dog years), and Sally and I in a similar age bracket, there was more than a hint of trepidation as we set out. The trailhead lot was empty— it was just the three of us. I paid close attention to my various joints and bones as I hefted up the 70-pound pack— extra heavy because I was carrying, along with the usual excess of clothes and food, a hardcover book that I could not leave at home.

As we walked along the trail ascending into a hidden valley, I began to slip into that wonderful place where you merge with the scents, textures, sounds, and feel of a place that had not changed for thousands of years. I thought about how precious it is, about the people who struggled to keep this valley from being dammed to store water for thirsty growing cities. I thought about my generation, who 40 years after Woodstock, would soon need to pass the torch to the next generation of advocates.

As my thoughts flowed with the trail, I pondered the economic as well as environmental distress that has gripped our world. There seem to be three big concerns facing us. First, with jobs and businesses disappearing, I wondered if amenities like wilderness, greenways, and trails could be cast aside as “superfluous.”

The second factor in this gathering tempest is the environent and our addiction to oil and other fossil fuels. As we hiked into the wilderness, the still blackened remains of the “Buffalo Creek” fire were evident. Some say this forest was not allowed its natural burn cycle— burning so hot that it destroyed both trees and their seed that normally propagate. But letting fires burn naturally conflicts with our desire to build more homes along the wild areas.


photo of grassy hillside

On the Katy rail trail in Missouri

The third theme, and perhaps most threatening, is how few people— especially those under 30— were on the trail. With iPods, virtual reality games, Facebook, and Twitter, I wondered if the next generations will revere these special places and fight for their survival. I wondered what steps those of us who embrace these values can take to save our legacy of wild rivers, streams, and woodlots not far from our doorsteps.

Yes, the storm clouds are dark on the horizon, and the winds are beginning to howl. There are those that spend their energy and precious time blaming others and denying any threat. But most of us, I think, see that we can gather our resources and skills to change course, to re-invent that looming future. Our goal should be an enduring “green” infrastructure that sustains us physically while connecting us to the natural world. Here are some possible steps in that process:


All great endeavors start with a single thought by someone. In Missouri someone got the idea of saving an abandoned rail line that virtually crosses the state. The result is the Katy Trail, a world-class amenity and a boon to local economies and quality of life. Perhaps more importantly that vision has inspired and enabled other projects across North America and on other continents.

For sheer audacity, consider Gil Penalosa, Parks Director in Bogotá, Columbia, who convinced city leaders to convert a network of streets into exclusive bike and pedestrian ways on weekends— a mobile festival revitalizing neighborhoods, people, and community life.

photo of trail with houses

Trails need to be part of the vision for entire communities

Sell your vision
We need to communicate what we want and why it will benefit nearly each person that embraces it. Put yourself inside the heads of those who will potentially buy into your trail or greenway project. Find testimonials from everyday people like the Arkansas couple who found bikes at Walmart and on Craig’s List that cost less than a dinner out, and now regularly ride the Fayetteville trail. Or the 54 year-old man in Connecticut who, nearly disabled by poor habits, discovered the Farmington Canal Trail and now regularly rides it with great vigor and joy. Also, listen carefully to those who oppose or criticize your project, try to understand their side and— when reasonable and feasible— incorporate their comments.

Yes, you can!
Who says you can’t do it? It will take persistence, it will take deal making, it will take selling, it will take demonstrating by example but it can be done. Don’t accept no. Ask at least six times.

Recruit leaders and champions

The Katy Trail was a phenomenal vision but there were the detractors and naysayers, some in powerful places. The Katy Trail advocates recruited leaders like Congresswoman Karen McCarty who carried the banner and made it happen.

Engage the next generation

One way to get the younger set away from their video screens, is promote stewardship projects in both remote and urban wilds. Local, state, and nationally organized programs to get kids out working on trails and tending to green places could do much to build that sorely needed ethic. As in the Great Depression, democracy is well served by helping unemployed folks find meaningful work, send checks home, and develop pride in themselves, the land, and the nation. It can work again!

sign says no new trtails

Not in my backyard

“Fear” is a four-letter word and so is “dumb”

We can no longer afford to embrace or tolerate irrational fear or just plain stupidity. To put it politely, widespread intellectual laziness, and an indulgence in our worst fears keep the rest of us from trying something different.

We see the same fears in the trails and greenways world. Fortunately the successes of the past three decades provide proof-of-concept examples that can help calm anxieties. The message to communities must not be “we can’t afford it.” It must be “we can’t afford not to have it” if we are to compete.

Network and collaborate nationwide and

Every year there are attempts to gut funding for urban trails and greenways from transportation budgets even though the funding would have been miniscule relative to the larger roads and bridges package. Trails advocates nationwide have formed a united front to inundate elected officials with positive messages and helped maintain funding for bike and pedestrian facilities.

And when it comes to networking, I want to commend American Trails’ efforts in effective networking, sharing
of ideas, and advocacy. So I urge you to stay connected to American Trails and support its activities with your
membership, and join us for the next American Trails National Symposium in Chattanooga, Tennessee in November, 2010.

By the way, that book I had in my pack was on Gustave Eiffel and his endeavor to build the structure known today as the Eiffel Tower. He had a daring vision, but when he proposed it as the centerpiece of the 1889 Paris World Exposition, he was laughed at. He was told the proposed tower was not only impossible, it was an affront to the sensibility of all Parisians. Yet, he was able to secure the funds, complete his project, and leave a legacy that is a worldwide icon.

We, too, can take on our challenge, not to build a structure of steel, but to fashion a sustainable global infrastructure that serves not only a better economic life, but also conserves land, air, and water. Our future will be great if we work together to nurture the wild places, greenways, and trails that refresh and rejuvenate us.

Bob Searns, Chair of the American Trails Board, is a greenways and trails development consultant, and Founding Associate of The Greenway Team, Inc., a company that assists communities and organizations across America.


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