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How we are all stewards of our national trails system

Thoughts on the challenge we all face— how to sustain our national trails system.

Read more on the 40th anniversary of the Act and facts about the National Trails System Act.

Remarks by Lynn Scarlett, Deputy Secretary of the Interior, October 2, 2008

Good morning! I am delighted to join you. The many partners here are testament that trails capture the Nation’s imagination and inspire stewardship.

As I contemplated this gathering, I thought of the words of noted biologist E.O. Wilson who writes of the “tug of history” on our minds and souls. Who we are is partly a matter of our “stories.” Trails help keep our stories alive. These stories can be both inspirational – of human triumph, genius, and fortitude. They can also be tragic – what happens when we lose sight of the value and meaningfulness of each individual human being and the value of our surroundings. I think, for example, of the tragic tale told through the Trail of Tears. Trails also help protect special places that—together—define our Nation

C. L. Rawlins, chronicler of Western experiences, once observed that the best way to know the beauty of this Nation “is not to hunker down and dig in, but like the pronghorn and bison and coyote, to stretch out and go.” Three years ago, I joined others along the Continental Divide Trail—part well-trod footpath, part “virtual” reality— to “stretch out and go.” The wee bit of trail we experienced was a microcosm of the whole— grasslands stretching out between mountains, some fences, fishermen casting along a stream. I didn’t see a pronghorn— but I knew they were there, somewhere. Wild lands along the trail interspersed with the hand of humankind.

Environment and economy; nature and culture; past and present— these all converge along the Continental Divide Trail. The Trail is symbolic, in the American imagination, of Western grandeur and adventure. I see why, too, its imagery evokes pictures of people—Native Americans hunting in forests up and down the Divide; miners extracting copper from hills around towns like Encampment; cowboys pushing cows across the grasslands; and streams, endless streams, of settlers struggling across the Rockies.

Last week, I spent two days hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We climbed up Grandfather Mountain, among the highest peaks in the East. Abundant mushrooms— golden, rust, pure white— carpeted the damp forest floor. Ravens soared. We climbed to the top, where we perched on granite rock to survey the world.

Just before that hike, I joined folks at Glacier National Park for a cross-border hike into Canada’s Waterton National Park. Thirty-five miles we trekked, past glacial lakes, through fields of wildflowers. We caught sight of a grizzly— in the distance— and moose, elk, foxes, marmots, and the ever-present ground squirrels.

The challenge we all face, of course, is how to sustain our national trails system. I offer a challenge to America— let us each hike a mile, mend a mile. Some of us may hike and mend a mile each day; some each week; others once a month. But let each of us “stretch out and go” along these trails and pause to lend a caring hand along the way.

Communities of times past— Native Americans first and pioneers in later generations—etched many of these trails across our Nation’s landscapes. Today, volunteers across America are our modern-day pioneers—pioneers in conserving these trails that we might enjoy them now and into the future. Volunteers who are part of the Partnership for the National Trails System contributed 721,000 hours of labor last year alone and $8 million in cash to support our nation’s trails. These modern conservation pioneers embody the spirit of cooperative conservation.

The mystery and mystique of this Nation’s trails come both from the grandeur of the landscapes they traverse and from the stories of the people who traveled and worked with these lands. During my hike along miles of the Continental Divide Trail, I learned about the role of local ranchers in repairing fences and maintaining passable tracks— an endless task since Nature never stands still.

Sustaining thousands of miles of trails can’t be done without lots of people in lots of places, which means communicating a vision of trails made whole— made whole so folks can “stretch out and go” experience the history, the culture, the economies, the ecology, and the geography that cut a swathe across America.

Stewards of our trails are a composite of America— a composite of farmers, ranchers, riders, outfitters, naturalists, hikers, businesses, foresters, legislators, the environmental community, Native Americans, and others. Their work is a composite of many visions, including visions of nature and history, scenic beauty and working landscapes, and stories of people who traveled and lived these lands.

Really big ideas become reality through the actions and skills of many who share a common goal and work together. In reading about the Santa Fe Trail, I came across the comments of one pioneer. In the wagon train, the constant refrain was “catch up, catch up, stretch out.” This appeal seems apt today with trail initiatives. There is so much to do, in so many places.

What is Interior’s role? We are, of course, partners. We manage portions of many trails. We help pool America’s resources to fund trails. We need to nurture engagement of local communities.

I think it is fitting as a conclusion to borrow words from M.J. Eberhert, a legendary long-distance hiker. He told participants at a trail conference:
"I’m just a hiker, but we’ve got lots of folks with a big vision. If you listen closely and hear a yell, it’s the shout of volunteers building great trails for the 21st century."

Let us all, then, hike a mile and mend a mile that we may sustain the great trails for this 21st century. Thank you!

For more information on the National Trails System and its 40-Year Anniversary:

More resources for National Scenic and Historic Trails

Resources from our partners:

National Park Service site for the National Trails System

Interview with Steve Elkinton, Program Leader for the National Trails System


Join American Trails


Related topics:

More resources:

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