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A wave of opportunity that trail supporters must ride

From the New Years 2004 issue of Trail Tracks, the national newsletter of American Trails

These exciting times offer challenges as well as great opportunities.

By Bob Searns

"Greenways, trails, bikeways, and railtrails are now mainstream. They are infrastructure."

One could say that 2003 was a challenging year. There were forest fires, earthquakes, and storms of biblical proportions, not to mention wars and solar flares. "Orange Christmas" became a disturbing new part of the American lexicon, and state and federal budgets went deeper into the red.

Beef and farm-grown salmon became suspect and when the beauty chose the Brad Pitt look-alike and flew off in the private jet, millions of "average Joes" had to get back on the bus. Ironically, one of the last messages of 2003 that flashed across the bottom of the CNN screen was that nearly one in three Americans is now clinically obese— perhaps the biggest threat to life and limb and national security.

One would think that in these trying times, the trails and greenway movement would have lost ground. After all, the fires and deficits have threatened to strain budgets and move trails down the list of priorities. Surprisingly, on many fronts, the opposite has happened. Greenways and trails are now mainstream. They are infrastructure.

American Trails joined many other organizations in an effort to keep trail funds in the transportation legislation before Congress. Nationwide, communities are creating new trails and greenways. Regions and states are banding together to create visionary long-distance corridors including the East Coast Greenway, The Pacific Crest Trail, The Continental Divide Trail and the American Discovery Trail, to name but a few. Folks in nearly every state are planning statewide trail corridors and networks.

Indeed trails and greenways are now "mainstream." Once perceived to be on the fringe or at least not at the forefront, trails and greenways are now a "must have" for any city that wants to compete and for any state-of-the art new development. They are an investment. Real estate developers now sign up for trail and greenway planning workshops at national forums held by the Urban Land Institute. Evidence that we have "arrived" was clear when a few weeks back, one of the network commentators, when hearing a report about the ten fittest U.S. cities said "Oh, they must have a lot of bike trails."

Time magazine cites a recent survey saying eight out of ten Baby Boomers plan to remain physically active into their 70's and five of ten into their 80's. Millions of younger people are also embracing trail recreation. A recent article in USA Today cited "trails" as a key amenity in re-emerging urban areas and a full-page United Airlines ad shows a mountain biker blasting out of a jumbo jet ramp. Paul Newman's latest charitable activity was a $10,000 gift to a trail effort in Maine.

Our trails and greenways movement is also embracing new kinds of trail recreation. Phebe Novic writes in this issue about her walk across Missouri on the Katy Trail with her husband David. The veteran world-wide trekkers envision a national system of long distance walking paths designed for all ages and abilities. You can set out on a trail on foot (or wheelchair) and travel from town to town, from bed and breakfast to bed and breakfast, or restaurant to restaurant (you earn your indulgence by walking 15 or 20 miles a day) without much more in the way of equipment except good shoes.

The Novics, in cooperation with American Trails, are planning a thirteen-part PBS special documenting their travels and bringing the notion of long distance walking— well established in Europe— to North America. It's a natural for the Baby Boomers, and for that matter, all age groups. Phebe Novic suggests that every school have a long-distance walk as part of the curriculum. "Imagine," she says, "how much a kid can learn taking a week-long walking trip across their state." Also, what a great opportunity to reverse the trend of soft drinks and videos.

These exciting times offer challenges as well as great opportunities. The American Trails Board, under the able direction of President Roger Bell and Executive Director Pam Gluck, adopted a new mission statement and vision to ensure a productive 2004. We see local trail systems in every neighborhood and an interconnected national network. We envision trails and greenways not only for recreation but also as a way to promote land and resource stewardship while reversing the unhealthy trend of inactivity and obesity. The statement calls for accessible trails and greenways offering a wide variety of activities while promoting employment, business opportunities, and quality communities. American Trails plans to step up to the plate by expanding our data and information base to help facilitate both trail development and trail recreation.

American Trails stands ready to embrace that mission not only to ride the wave of opportunity but to meet the formidable challenges that lie ahead as well. We urge you to join American Trails in its mission at the national level with your ideas, your input and your support, and more importantly, working in your community to realize the vision because ultimately that is where the vision will be realized. We also urge you to get out there to enjoy trails both in the remote wild places and in your neighborhood.

Please also participate in our 17th National Trails Symposium in Austin this October to share your knowledge and successes. Come to share and come to learn. Contribute your ideas and articles to Trail Tracks. Together we are becoming a formidable movement that can reshape our cities and help conserve our countryside and wild places. American Trails needs you and you need American Trails— join us!


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