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For a healthier America: RTCA celebrates 20 years

Rivers. Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program is the Heart of National Park Service Community Outreach

From the Fall 2008 issue of American Trails Magazine

By Terry Eastin, Mikssissippi River Trail, Inc.

Last year, on behalf of Mississippi River Trail, I received the Kodak American Greenways award in Washington D.C. During my acceptance speech, I spoke very highly of the Rivers. Trails, and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) branch of the National Park Service. Less than a minute or two after leaving the podium, an indignant federal government representative approached me with an ax to grind.

With little more than quick introduction, this person gruffly challenged my remarks and the need for the RTCA program. With inches betweern us, I gave him five quick examples of RTCA successes in Arkansas. Eventually, Mr. Nameless shook my hand and left. Concerned and saddened, I knew his mindset had not been changed. His misunderstanding of the purpose and intent of RTCA is not unusual. Many do not understand or value the RTCA program.

What is the Rivers & Trails Program?

The Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program, also known as the Rivers & Trails Program or RTCA, is the community assistance arm of the National Park Service. There are 90 conservation and recreation planning staff members around the country.

Staff personnel provide technical assistance to community groups and nonprofit organizations, tribes or tribal governments, and local, state, or federal government agencies so they can conserve rivers, preserve open space, and develop trails and greenways. The RTCA program implements the natural resource conservation and outdoor recreation mission of the National Park Service in communities across America.

The Community Assistance Arm of the National Park Service

Rivers and Trails program officers provide technical with the goal of helping achieve on-the-ground conservation successes for local projects. The focus is on assisting communities help themselves by providing expertise and experience from around the nation. From urban promenades to trails along abandoned railroad rights-of-way to wildlife corridors, assistance in greenway development is diverse. Similarly, the assistance in river conservation spans downtown riverfronts to regional water trails to stream restoration.

Rivers and Trails professionals are facilitators who help advocates and project leaders identify key opportunities, navigate a myriad of challenges, and engineer success stories that likely would not have been possible without RTCA assistance.

By bringing an “outside” perspective”, RTCA staff is uniquely poised to assume the key role of facilitator, to insure that as many people from different parts of the community -- citizen and business groups, local and state government agencies, etc. are as involved as possible in helping reach consensus on a plan of action. RTCA often acts as a catalyst to help assemble the necessary pieces to achieve on-the-ground conservation success.

Are They Effective?

The Rivers & Trails program keeps vibrant by adapting and refocusing efforts in response to the needs of the communities served. Staff applies proven techniques, while at the same time searching for new ways to add value to local projects.

On average, RTCA partners protect more than 700 miles of rivers, create over 1400 miles of trails, and conserved more than 63,700 acres of open space each year. By working side-by-side with grassroots groups and local governments in communities throughout the country, the National Park Service, through the RTCA program, is building a nationwide system of parks, open spaces, rivers, and trails. More than 300 communities nationwide are helped by RTCA annually.

In 2006 alone, RTCA helped 195 bicycling, 193 hiking, 106 open space conservation, 102 stream/riparian area, 22 parks and recreation, 15 art and conservation, 66 health and wellness, 57 rail-trail, 31 connecting trails to school, and 64 water trail projects. This program makes a big impact on a shoestring budget of approximately $8 million dollars annually. Newly proposed federal budget numbers for Fiscal Year 2009 will mean even the shoestring is getting shorter.

The Issue

The RTCA program budget, at approximately $8.0 - $8.5 million per year, is less than 1 percent of the overall National Park Service Budget yet, more than 300 communities are helped each year.

RTCA is facing significant federal budget cuts for 2009. These cuts will require the organization to close offices and reduce staff. As much as 6% of RTCA’s funding may be lost in 2009.

Many, in the federal government, like Mr. No Name, do not understand the importance RTCA and its community outreach. Understanding the need to build, preserve and protect our rivers, our greenways, and our trail systems through creative public/private partnerships is paramount to a healthy future.

In today’s America, where trail systems can serve as alternate transportation systems by reducing family budget gobbling gasoline expenditures is the time to increase funding for this premiere organization.

Obesity-related diseases are consuming America. Trails and greenway systems close to home provide chances for Americans to get and stay fit. Statistics point to the fact the average overweight person spends in excess of $4,000 a year more on physician’s visits than their regular weight counterparts. Some cardiologists and other physicians already write trail use prescriptions. Nine years of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies have determined that communities with well-developed trail systems are by and large healthier than those without them. Next year is the time to increase the RTCA budget to help combat obesity-related disease.

While Americans are suffering from the enormous debt brought on by the war in Iraq, is the time to remember our communities and the needs of our people. Development of trails and trail systems is a high priority for Americans. Studies conducted by the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders tell us that 36% of Americans looking to buy a new home rank nearby trails as number one the list of amenities desired. Forty-four percent rank access to highways above trails, but other amenities like tennis courts, golf courses, and even playgrounds rank significantly below trails amenity requests.

There are many concrete examples where trail systems have positively impacted local communities economically and brought tourists to areas that haven’t seen a tourist in 25 years. A simple search of the American Trails website, www.americantrails.org, offers vast resources including economic, health and social impact, and conservation information regarding benefits of trails and greenways.

What to do?

Contact your U.S. Congressmen and Senators. Let them know that reducing the RTCA budget is unacceptable. Tell them your success stories working with RTCA. Help them understand the importance and value of this program to American communities.

The education of our public officials and representatives is the central issue. Our voices are the bridge between RTCA and funding solutions that can grow the program in new ways. To armor RTCA and allow them to expand their community engagement programs will cost an additional $3 – 4 million dollars.

The message for Congress is this - RTCA has solutions to some of the country's most pressing problems: obesity, nature deficit, chronic diseases and poor physical condition brought on by inactivity and depression. Through partnerships with communities across the country, RTCA extends the benefits of conservation and outdoor recreation by connecting people with their local landscapes and the parks, engaging youth in the out-of-doors, and promoting healthy outdoor recreation and alternate transportation. All that is needed to roll out a civic engagement-based program of cooperative conservation and outdoor recreation is $3 - $4 million dollars – a paltry sum for a program that is protecting, preserving and helping to build a new America through vibrant and vital innovative partnerships.

For more information on the Rivers Trails and Conservation Assistance program, go to www.nps.gov/ncrc/programs/rtca.

Terry Eastin
Co-Chair, 2008 National Trails Symposium

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