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Creating a vision for trails for the 21st Century

The American Trails "Visioning" session held at the 1998 National Trails Symposium brought together a diverse group of trails activists to look at the trends and issues that need most attention in the future.

From the Spring 1999 editioin of Trail Tracks, the newsletter of American Trails

"Achieving a National System of Trails is a complex problem that requires access to a vast array of information, technology, ideas, and political support."

The big questions

What is the state of America's nationwide trails system?
What is our shared vision of the future of trails?
What actions should we be pursuing to improve and develop America's trails?

These are some of the questions asked at the American Trails "Visioning" session at the recent National Trails Symposium. A diverse group of forward-looking activists in the trails community brainstormed the trends and issues that need most attention in the future. They analyzed current accomplishments and proposed actions for American Trails and the agencies and organizations we partner with.

The following issues are grouped under larger topics:

Communications and education

  • We need better information about trails: where to find them, how to access them, who can help with them, and their levels of difficulty.

  • We need more consistent concepts (and training programs) for trail planning, design, construction, and management.

  • The trails community needs to document and articulate a clear message of the benefits and value of trails for the public.

  • Promote successful examples of how trails and greenways can partner with urban planning, smart growth initiatives, and public transit.

  • Provide feedback to funders about what their funds have successfully accomplished.

  • The strength of the trails community is in its grassroots origins. We need to support grassroots organizations with better technical information presented in new ways.

The environment of trails

  • We must realize that we are part of the natural systems around us and use trails and greenways to promote better planning and conservation.

  • There is lack of multiple land use in proximity to our homes: some think trails are too close, and others too far, from where they live.

  • Our national tradition of "land use anarchy," the chaos of sprawl, exemplifies the struggle between society's rights of the commons and private property rights.

  • For trails, there needs to be a balance between local and regional control, and a consideration of everyone's involvement.

  • The current configuration of urban area expansion is scaled to cars, not bicycles or pedestrians.

  • There needs to be a perception that one is safe when using a trail (this is especially important for women, children, and the elderly).

  • We should be working together with environmental groups, not in conflict with them. Often, environmental values are seen in opposition to recreation, not complementary to it.

  • Trails can help protect large landscapes. How can we expand our visions and our organizations from the pathway to the broader corridor or greenway?

Identity and integration

  • There is a new diversity of trail "purposes," (such as the jazz trail, trail of knowledge, or Trail of Tears). Trail managers need to expand their role in education and preservation.

  • Trails are more than just a place to play. We should take the concept of "trails within 15 minutes of all" to an integration of trails into the transportation infrastructure: neighborhood building, communication, and living on a human scale.

  • We need to identify "headwaters" issues to coalesce around. We need a lexicon of inclusiveness to broaden our sense of the community of trails.

  • Are our trails a "system" or a "collection?" A system can be made through connections, through consistency, and through coherence.

  • We have to distinguish between the National Trails System (as created by law) and the broader, more inclusive "national system of trails."

Reaching out and broadening our vision

  • We need to broaden the cultural, ethnic, and economic diversity in the trails community.

  • Trails could be a way of fighting the fragmentation of society. Different economic classes and cultural groups may need encouragement to take advantage of opportunities that trails and greenways provide for physical activity and enjoyment of the outdoors.

  • Marketing and funding strategies should emphasize that pedestrian corridors provide essential access and travel opportunities for people with disabilities.

  • How can we stimulate our youth to be involved in trails? Many kids get exercise today only in highly organized activities, such as soccer. Instead of walking or bicycling to activities, kids are driven everywhere.

  • Those doing trail planning should work more with youth organizations and youth employment efforts.

  • We should embrace organizations outside the trails community to increase cross-pollination of ideas and experience.

  • There is a need for materials to better educate the general public about trails and their benefits.

  • Involve motorized groups in the broader issues of the trails community.

Trail Culture

  • There is a need for better networking and partnerships among trail user groups to help them share more of their agendas and experience with one another.

  • There is a need to create an expectation of a top-quality trail experience, an awe, which in turn creates a respectful code of behavior like the politeness shown at symphony concerts.

  • Our expectations for a better life ("trails within 15 minutes of all Americans") may conflict with our finite resources. We need to focus and refine our efforts to the limits and realities around us.

  • We need to know our own history better.

  • Land managers and their staff need to be educated about the needs of trail users. They need to eliminate their personal biases and open up their thinking.

  • We need to promote building better trails that are more easily defended. What can we realistically accomplish?

  • We need to start programs for leadership development.

  • Research for informed decision making

  • Reliable scientific studies and statistics are needed on trail safety issues.

  • There is a lack of scientific data about the impacts of trail activities on wildlife and the environment. Biased or generalized misinformation is being used to keep trail users out.

  • Trail advocates in America generally do not make use of the knowledge and experience of other nations and cultures.

  • We need to better understand and document the importance of trails in individual and community health.

Implementing Our Decisions

  • We need a national mandate for trail planning as part of community infrastructure planning.

  • We need to develop trail systems, trails that really connect, not isolated trails.

  • Encourage creativity and flexibility. We need formal systems and organizations, but we need to stimulate new ideas and responses to changing opportunities.

  • When land use issues arise, government may be reluctant to act. We need to develop resources, support, and funding to deal with controversial situations.

  • Success can lead to crowding. How can we accommodate different uses and maintain top-quality trail experiences?

  • Governments struggle to maintain existing trails. We need to find a balance of funding new construction as well as the maintenance and improvement of trails.

  • Lessen dangers and hazards through better design.

  • Funding is still insufficient, even with TEA-21 and the Recreational Trails Program. We need to support new opportunities for funding recreation and corridor preservation.

  • There is a need for consistent and sustained Federal support for a national system of trails. Even after 30 years, most of the National Trails System is still incomplete. We need to make this legislation operative. and improve programs like the National Recreation Trails.

  • Powerful interests do not support the trails agenda. The more successful we are, the more attention the opposition will pay. We need to work together to defend our successes.

  • The trails community needs to respond to existing land use patterns and to think about broader land use issues, not just what we want as trail users.

  • Achieving a National System of Trails is a complex problem that requires access to a vast array of information, technology, ideas, and political support. Some of this information exists but is not easily found. Our challenge is to create, collect, and disseminate this vision to gain cooperation among all existing stakeholders and potential constituencies

American Trails will convene further discussions to carry this work forward and organize efforts on behalf of realizing more nationwide progress in establishing trails as an essential part of America's physical and spiritual landscape.

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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