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Trails, rivers, and global warming

Trails offer a large return for a very small investment.

By Roger Bell

"We need to widen our vision and see how trails could be a dimension of the fight against global warming."

I think it's time to enlarge our vision about the place of trails in our collective awareness. This includes environmental and historical dimensions than can— and increasingly do— inform our conversations and educational outreach.

For example, I just read a terrific book, From the Bottom Up by Chad Pregracke&emdash; whose story has been highlighted on CBS Sunday Morning and many other news outlets. A young fellow from the Quad Cities area (site of the 2006 National Trails Symposium), he has almost single-handedly mobilized a clean up effort of the Mississippi River and many of the major tributaries down to (and including) New Orleans.

And I mean major cleanup. They have gone from a few kids with flat-bottom boats to a fleet of barges, an active crew of dedicated people, and the support of hundreds of volunteers. Over the past several years, tons of trash, including old boats, refrigerators, TVs, massive amounts of toxic garbage, etc. have been removed to landfills.

Chad has built a movement, demonstrating enormous will and perseverance, enlisting funding and support from the public as well as governmental entities along the rivers&emdash; including DC politicians when he tackled the seemingly impossible task of cleaning up the Potomac. They have recruited teachers and students to broaden the educational scope of the undertaking, combining science and service, enlightenment and action.

It's such an incredible story, and one that I hope can be highlighted at the National Trail Symposium in Little Rock next to one of our major rivers, the Arkansas.

An organization in Southern California, Trails4All, led by my friend, Jim Meyer, has pioneered an effort, "Coastal and Waterways Cleanup Days," to get communities involved in removing trash from many rivers that eventually reach the sea. Last year they held 50 or events, enlisting hundreds of volunteers, securing significant corporate funding, and gaining the support and appreciation of government entities and environmental organizations along the rivers.

T4A primarily mobilizes trail training and maintenance by volunteers. They simply have recognized that improving the quality of our rivers is intimately connected with their other mission of improving the quality of our trails. It is a noble and worthy undertaking we should recognize and appreciate.

A growing environmental problem, also connected to river pollution, has been the discovery of "dead zones" in ocean waters, including a massive one near the outlet of the Mississippi River. It has to do with the growth of organisms caused by warming currents and pollution, mainly excessive runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers, and depositions from power plants and vehicle emissions. This depletes the oxygen content of water and kills off sea life in those areas.

Maybe it seems too difficult for us, too fraught with potential controversy, or too much of a stretch for us to connect as a community with these larger environmental problems. But I believe not. Trail use is a way of reducing reliance upon the automobile, contributing to reductions in greenhouse gases, and encouraging healthy life styles by more walking and bicycling for transportation and recreation. We need to widen our vision and see how trails could be a dimension of the fight against global warming and otherwise deepen our environmental and health awareness.

As part of that we can come to see trails and rivers as sharing historic and conceptual kinship. Lewis and Clark went west using many river corridors to reach the Pacific. The National Parks have seen this connection in forming their Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance (RTCA) branch. Specifically designated water trails are a growing phenomenon and an important focus of American Trails.

Let's celebrate these developments and sharpen our understanding of how rivers and trails connect and how we can be inspired to recognize our responsibilities as true environmental stewards.

For additional information, please contact Roger at the American Trails office at 530-547-2060 or via email at

Submit your opinion, article, or editorial to American Trails at or if you have questions call us at (530) 547-2060.

American Trails offers this website as a public resource to share ideas and opinions on trails and greenways. We have not evaluated the accuracy, feasibility, or legality of any of the material or articles. The opinions and editorials presented here do not necessarily reflect the opinion or support of American Trails. American Trails does not discriminate against individuals or groups on the basis or race, religion, nationality, or political affliiation.

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