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Forging alliances among trail users: the role of state trails organizations

Why statewide organizations are important to the political strength of trails and greenways.

By Stuart H. Macdonald
Colorado State Trails Coordinator from 1984-2002

How would you like to get involved with yet another organization-- more meetings, more subcommittees, more incomprehensible reports? There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about creating new groups, but there are compelling reasons for putting efforts into those that promote trails on a statewide basis:

- Providing input from and cooperation among all varieties of trail users;'

- Promoting statewide political support for trail funding and development;

- Involving citizens in grants and project selection;

- Helping communities, volunteers, and citizens groups;

- Providing a forum for discussion and resolution of statewide trails issues;

- Establishing a serious advocacy group with credibility and official status.

Most recently, the Symms National Trails Fund Act has provided us with some financial incentive to look seriously at our state trail organizations. To qualify for this federal funding, the letter of the law requires that each state have "a recreational trails advisory board on which both motorized and non-motorized recreational trail users are represented." But we should also pay attention to the spirit of the Symms Act in getting the multitude of different trails interests to cooperate and find some common ground.

Cooperation among trail users

Whatever money is eventually provided by the Symms Act will be important, but the long-term benefit will be in helping build stronger advocacy groups for trails. Cooperation in order to secure the Symms funding is a first step. We also need to get the whole spectrum of trail users together and take an honest look at their differences. what kinds of experiences people are after and what kinds of routes and terrain they need. Who's being left out or pushed out? What new demands are made by different users and increasing numbers? What new trails can provide for which users, and how can statewide trail plans provide for those needs?

In this way the real, as opposed to imagined, differences can be discussed. There are issues with noise, solitude, expectations, safety, and tradition. These issues have a physical reality, they are emotional, but they are not immovable moral principles. In discussing these issues we come closer to the common ground among all trail users that we need to explore. This is an important function of the statewide group that transcends boundaries and includes urban as well as wilderness trails, motorized routes as well as nature trails. All of us share these common goals: to protect access to public lands, protect the environment and its beauty, to enjoy travelling and being outdoors, to encourage responsible recreation and tourism.

The challenge of new users and new opportunities

We need the representation of the whole spectrum of trail users in our statewide programs. After decades of traditional use-- hikers, equestrians, pack trains-- new generations have also brought new trail activities. As long as bicycles were thin-tired racing models, they could be ignored by backcountry enthusiasts. But the sheer numbers of mountain bikes mean they are a big part of the trails constituency. Ignoring, or fighting, entire categories of trail users means losing a great deal of potential support. And it threatens funding and political power by turning the trails community into competitors-- and enables us all to be dismissed as special interest groups.

Opportunity is something else we can't ignore. Whatever funding the Symms Act provides, the opportunity we can't ignore is the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). The Enhancements program gives us a chance to widen our vision to see opportunities in the world of transportation. In Colorado, seven of the first 21 Enhancements projects approved include trail construction, and will receive $1,173,671 of the $3.6 million total. Enhancements funding was also provided for historic preservation and archaeological projects, streetscaping, stream improvements, and several projects related to Scenic and Historic Byways. There are trail opportunities in all of these categories, but we need to include new players in our trail organizations as well as just in our thinking.

ISTEA specifically requires every state to hire a State Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator. Because of the money involved, we are going to see more states with specifically bicycle programs and staff than recreational trails programs. We will also see new state bicycle advisory boards and state bicycle plans along with vocal advocates for these programs. It will be up to us to make connections with these new efforts and to keep a dialogue going between recreation and transportation interests. State Trails Committees and associations need to meet with the bicycle groups and find common interests, with the goal of seeing transportation funding going to projects with real recreational benefits.

Patterns for statewide trails groups

While the Symms Act establishes a National Recreational Trails Committee, there is no defined relationship between it and the individual state trails advisory boards. This is an important point: states are different and there is no single pattern for a trails organization that we should feel compelled to follow. One important distinction is that some states have an organization that is purely private-- that is, it is neither appointed by nor answerable to the state government. Iowa, for instance, has an "official" ATV Program Advisory Committee, but a private, non-profit Iowa Trails Council serves the function of representing larger statewide trails interests.

Symms funding will mean the formation of either entirely new trails committees, or hybrid groups that join together periodically to represent both motorized and non-motorized interests for funding purposes. We can learn a lot from these new organizations which will create new models for effective trail advocacy.

What can statewide trails groups accomplish?

With this ambitious agenda, can volunteer committees really accomplish anything? Like everything else in life, what you get depends on what you put in. In this case, a lot depends on good committee members who can take the time and energy. It also depends on agencies contributing staff time, keeping up a flow of information, hosting meetings and field trips, and paying at least some travel expenses. But the public interest in all kinds of trails is keen, the potential for increased funding is excellent, and state and federal agencies are making recreation a priority.

A model state trails committee

There are some important points that should be considered in all trails groups. The following are key elements in creating and maintaining an effective statewide trails organization:

1. Geographic Representation-- The whole state needs to participate, including the big metropolitan centers as well as rural areas, and topographic regions with different climates and outdoor interests. Schemes for representation include using Congressional Districts, state parks administrative regions, or Land and Water Conservation Fund regions.

2. User Representation-- There are four major categories of motorized trail activities and four non-motorized. Expressing all viewpoints yet achieving a balance among them is the biggest challenge. Disabled people are found in all categories and should be included not as a special interest group but as a source of inspiration for good design. Canoe and boating interests may also be important.

3. Agency Participation-- The Forest Service and bureau of Land Management are common participants in addition to the state parks agency. State transportation and wildlife agencies and others may be included in an advisory or coordinating role.

4. Committee Size-- Seven to 12 is an ideal size for group dynamics, but other sizes may considered. A smaller executive committee can be the decision-making body while a very large group may be the forum for issues and public input. Logistics become critical for a larger group, but sheer energy and effective subcommittees may be the payoff.

5. Funding Decisions-- the authority for making important decisions on funding gives committees more visibility and respect, as well as a greater sense of responsibility. Funding also brings ideological debates down to earth and fosters compromise and cooperation. Dealing with money may also give the group more incentive to tackle the tough issues.

6. Planning and Administrative Decisions-- Many factors that make up state trails programs need public input. The committee can weigh alternatives and help keep the program flexible as conditions change. Appropriate roles for the committee are identifying new trail corridors, setting eligibility for projects and facility types, and setting procedures and timetables for planning and grants programs.

7. Setting Priorities-- The committee can look at available resources and decide what is most important trail-related efforts. Trail corridors need to be prioritized, as well as such needs as planning, design, construction, maintenance, and volunteer support.

8. Local Trail Support-- The committee has a responsibility to encourage and work with local groups involved in particular trails. Going on field trips, joining in celebrations, and speaking to groups on funding and statewide goals are all important jobs for committee members.

9. Providing a Forum for Trails Issues-- Agencies need to hear all sides of trails issues as well as new ideas and concerns. The committee can provide the opportunity for real public input, both at statewide meetings and by members participating in other trail organizations.

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