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Increasingly it has become evident to many of us that trails and green corridors are not trivial. They are critical investments--even in hard times.

arrow From the Fall 2010 issue of the American Trails Magazine


Custos Naturae: More Than Just Trails

One of the most amazing things about traveling abroad is the new perspective you get when you step outside familiar surroundings. It was especially nice, on a recent visit to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, to be away from the cacophony of “breaking” TV news, acrid partisan political bickering and related dysfunctionality. All that self-importance seemed far away and small watching a baby White Rhino and its mother during a sunrise hike.

photo of family on trail

Trail in South Africa’s Kruger National Park

It was beautiful and spectacular to be in wild Africa but it was also very troubling. Looking at a map of that heavily populated continent, I saw that the wild places had become just small inlands in a sea of human settlement. I also learned, talking to people, that what remains of Africa’s wildlife habitat is extremely stressed as natural routes of migration are increasingly blocked and human impacts take their toll.

Entering the national park I noticed the inscription Custos Naturae. Later I saw it everywhere from coffee cups in the souvenir shop to the tiles on bathroom walls. Literally it means “Keepers of Nature”— and indeed that is what we have become. That Rhino family, the lions, the elephants, once feared by man, are now totally vulnerable and dependent on us for their very existence as species. Indeed these National Parks, forests and other wild lands—theirs and ours—are now an “ark” reliant on our stewardship. The same could be said of our rivers and streams, shorelines, the Gulf of Mexico—all of those places— in country and in city— that now need custos naturae.

For the past two decades the leaders of the trails and greenway movement in North America have gathered biennially to share ideas, enjoy each other's company and celebrate successes. This year's National Trails Symposium in Chattanooga, TN continues that tradition. At each gathering we look back at the progress made and how the movement has evolved particularly as a new generation of trails professionals and advocates comes of age. While the enthusiasm for backcountry and rural trails has continued to flourish the past two decades have also seen the explosion of urban trails and greenways. Indeed these have evolved from obscurity to mainstream-a must-have part of community infrastructure demanded by the public and recognized by enlightened elected officials and business leaders as a critical investment.

Parallel to the trails movement there has been the "green" movement, recognition of the profound effects humans have had on natural systems of land, water, flora and fauna. Yep, it’s custos naturae. It is these systems that sustain body and spirit and make our communities livable.

photo of family on trail

Stay on the trail! Trespassers will be eaten

If we learned anything from travesties like the BP disaster is the price of being cavalier about the environment. Yet walk an urban river on any given day in any given town and you see thousands of little "BP's"—of dumped trash, contaminants, bulldozed riparian areas and other wrongs with immeasurable cumulative effect. Yet the metric of this impact seems to elude its due measurement when some politicians and other myopic individuals tout economic health. The "Green Way for America" theme of the Chattanooga Symposium picked up on this spirit and this concern. The vision is to look at trails not only as recreational amenities but as a catalyst for a green ethic thinking in terms of trail corridors as well as the trail itself.

A number of communities and organizations have already been on this track. The Wolf River effort in Memphis TN is a great example of multi-objective thinking. In this instance, a land conservancy, city government and a philanthropic group have teamed up to create a bold vision of a preserved habitat, parks, and a cleaned up river, all linked by a trail system. In the backcountry, organizations like the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative focus on preserving fragile alpine environments by building more sustainable trails and promoting the values of “Leave no Trace.”

Increasingly it has become evident to many of us that trails and green corridors are not trivial. They are critical investments--even in hard times. And yes, that is part of the economic metric the talk radio and cable news pundits are missing. Green is part of the investment. It enhances our wellbeing. It’s not a choice between being green and being poor. It’s whether we want a win-win. It can be if we open our eyes. Africa is learning that lesson investing heavily in saving their remaining wild places with tourism revenues dependant on it. Green is making them wealthier not poorer—in pocketbook and quality of life!

In the current economic and fiscal malaise in our country, garnering resources has become increasingly difficult. Green thinking and trails become scapegoats even though the relative cost is miniscule. Some even see conservation as a “threat to our freedom”. In my state, according to the newspaper, a major party’s candidate for Governor stated that Denver’s effort to create more bicycle facilities and lessen dependence on the automobile was part of a secret UN plot. Such nonsense is not only misleading it is costly in opportunities lost.

Given these cross currents and real economic problems such as the real estate debacle, right or wrong, I suspect that public funding will become scarcer and we will need to look increasingly to enlightened private-sector and philanthropic partnering to continue the momentum of the trails movement. Trail and greenway efforts from Chattanooga to Memphis, to Denver, to Little Rock, to Detroit and even Casper, WY demonstrate what can be done.

We will need to do more. It is hard to have an environmental ethic and a sense of stewardship when you can't experience a place when you become disconnected. Greenways and trails are one way to re-establish that connection. You can’t have a stewardship ethic if the population can no longer experience what was— if landscape amnesia sets in (as author Jarred Diamond describes it) when the wild places are no more. A key mission of the Chattanooga national symposium is to express that connectivity and to send people home with enhanced tools to continue and expand the greenway movement— custos naturae.

While waiting in line to leave South Africa and enter Swaziland, I started flipping through my passport and saw a quote by the late President Eisenhower…”Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.”. It is fitting because many of the concepts of national parks and conservation sprang worldwide sprang from our great American public lands tradition. Even the current movement in Africa to create green corridors linking wildlife habitat and national parks across national borders came from the first “peace park” created between Canada and the U.S. at Glacier National Park. Will we as a nation again assume that mantle of leadership or at least support it? I hope so.

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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