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The process of creating a state trails plan

Putting a state or regional plan together requires a wide range of decisions. Here are the major steps involved, based on the author's experience in Colorado.

By Stuart H. Macdonald

Map of Colorado

Do we really need any more trail plans in this country? If we're planning instead of building trails, then the answer is no. Plans do serve as an inspiration, and we need inspiration. But the point of plans is that we find ways to get that inspiration to become reality. Looking at the big picture through statewide trail plans is one effective way to communicate that vision and establish the importance of trails.

The Purpose of State Trail Plans

In the Summary of our 1992 State Recreational Trails Plan we state the purpose:

  • Set out priorities for state funding of local trails.
  • Encourage coordination among towns, counties, and state and federal agencies.
  • Identify specific trail corridors and needs as a component of the State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan.
  • Promote Recommended Actions for agencies and groups involved in trails.
  • Provide information useful to trail planners, developers, and managers.
  • Provide a framework for research and education on critical trail issues.

In keeping with the last two points, we also include:

  • Description and examples of the benefits of trails.
  • Data on types of trail use, future trends, user demographics, and trail needs.
  • Agencies involved in acquiring, developing, and managing trails.
  • Trail funding sources and assistance programs in planning, design, construction, maintenance, mapping, and promotion of trails.

Putting a State Trails Plan Together

The heart of a trails plan is nothing more than some lines on a map. Everything else is support for why you drew the lines, or help for those who will try to turn the lines into trails. Here are the principal decisions and tasks involved in a state trails plan:

1. Set goals

First, decide exactly what your goals are and what you hope to accomplish. Whether your goal is funding, or publicity of trail opportunities, or education of elected officials, technical assistance for communities, or coalition building among trail groups&endash; or all of these&endash; your document should pursue that strategy.

2. Examine your resources

How much money, if any, do you have for the project? Can a staff person devote part time to the plan over a long period? Is one of the federal or state agencies willing to help? Can the trails plan be part of a SCORP or other project? Can a graduate class or student interns be mobilized? Are there grants or donations available? Are there active trails organizations or other volunteers that can help? Is there a university program that can help with statistics, surveys, or other technical efforts?

3. Look at formats and content

There is no standard for what has to be in a plan, and the thicker it is, the less of it will be read. If your needs are simple, the plan can be simple. Organizing the material in a clear way is the biggest challenge. To some extent, it should be the trail users and their needs that determine the content and focus of the plan. Keep in mind what would be the most useful to someone trying to develop a trail. Elaborate recommendations may be less important than data&endash; such as who uses trails.

4. Write a work plan

This may be obvious, but there are so many elements in a trails plan, so much research, so many people involved, that care at this stage will pay off later. It is important to decide what the role of the state agency is. Are you compiling existing plans, telling communities where their trails ought to go, or responding to public desires starting at square one? Finally, have a strategy for what you do with the plan and how you will update or follow it in future years.

5. Consider alternatives for maps

Do you hire the university to do sophisticated GIS maps, or do buy some USGS maps and a roll of tape? Be clear on what you need to communicate: major cross-state routes, regional corridors, or detailed local trail systems. Different scales or types of base maps may be appropriate. If you're starting from scratch, a simple computer graphics program may be ideal and will make future updates less painful. If resources are limited, try to get local planners to mark their trails on your base map rather than interpolating.

6. See what is already available

A first step should be an inquiry to see what kinds of local, regional, or federal trail planning has already been done. Does the SCORP have any useable information on trails? Who else has studied trail needs, demand, or opportunities? Is material from other states or agencies applicable? Decide where your efforts will be best spent in acquiring the best information.

7. Contact planners, agencies, and communities

Get letters out to everyone and be specific about what you need and set deadlines. Let your goals be your guide as to the detail needed for various topics. A simple questionnaire is easy to answer, but you may also want copies of local articles on trails issues, maps, transportation plans that include bikes and pedestrians, and community surveys and other evidence of the demand for trails.

8. Solicit public input

The public input process can be both time-consuming and unrewarding. What we really are after is a clear sense of what trail users, the whole spectrum of them, really need. To reach them you have to have clear goals and something for them to react to. The traditional meeting in a large, uncomfortable room may not yield good input. The Forest Service "open house" where people drop by at their convenience is another idea. Field trips, newsletters with response forms, on-the-trail interviews, in-depth meetings with various user groups— these and other less bureaucratic methods may be time-consuming but will yield a better cross-section of public opinion.

9. Put it all together

The tedious review process is an opportunity to see what mistakes you've made, but you may also receive well-written information on topics you can add directly to the plan. Since people love to be critical, it's also a chance to see what issues they feel strongly about. Approval of the plan can be a tough process, but that official blessing is essential. Just as important is acceptance and endorsement by organizations and civic leaders.

10. Connect a strategy to the plan

We all know what plans do on shelves. but people want trails, there are funds available, there are eager potential volunteers, there are people working on a remarkable variety of trails in every part of the country. The state trails plan is a collection of dreams, but it is also a collection of resources and accomplishments. Introducing the dreams to the resources is the job of an effective trails plan. Take some of the bright ideas out of the plan and publicize them relentlessly. Get these ideas out to the media, trail organizations, and community groups&endash; not just the planners. Finally, don't forget the elected officials— from the smallest town's city council to your representatives in Congress. Funding and political support— not plans— are what get trails built.

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