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“I can safely say that all of us who are deeply involved in trails have an abiding optimism about the value and longevity of trails.”


arrow Originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of American Trails Magazine


Trends and technologies evolve, but trails still matter


As we start our 27th year of advocacy, American Trails would like to thank the many thousands who have joined us and supported us. At the 2015 American Trails International Trails Symposium we’ll be recognizing more of the milestones of those years as well as looking forward to new accomplishments. The gathering also is bringing partners together from across the trails community and around the world to celebrate an inclusive vision for the future.

photo of sign by trail

Trails for the future: more urban and community trails

The National Trails Symposium, first held in 1971, is our longest-running tradition. As we mark another milestone in these four decades of conferences, we also celebrate a welcome new direction. Since we are now a worldwide trails community, we are recognizing our broader reach as the International Trails Symposium. It has become the largest gathering of trail advocates and managers, and it will be fascinating to see how it evolves in years to come to meet the needs of trails people across the globe.

We have come to expect that technology will change the way we use our trails. It was a little over 25 years ago that I bought my first mountain bike. We’ve watched that sport grow into one of the largest categories of trail users. Meanwhile, deregulation led to a flood of abandoned railroads, and today close to 20,000 miles of rail trails are open.

Now we are seeing water trails emerge as a new growth area. While paddling sports go back to the dawn of humanity, we have learned a new way of seeing canoes and kayaks. Just as with dirt trails, people in boats like to follow a route. Paddlers need trailheads, maps, signs, and trail information. States and communities have also embraced the benefits of tourism and economic development that come with water trails.

photo of kids with tiny tree

More kids and young adults getting involved in outdoor resources

At the heart of American Trails’ mission is promoting communication among all these trail interests. We are still the only group that represents every type of trail user, from urban bikeways to snow trails to motorized recreation to wilderness backpacking. Our goal is to find the common ground among all of us who love the outdoors, whether it is in our neighborhood or distant deserts and mountains. Just one example is the National Recreation Trails program, for which American Trails is the lead non- profit. We work with all the federal land management agencies as well as the national trails organizations to encourage more awareness and use of these great trails.

Even us old timers can barely remember the days before the internet. But in less than 25 years we have gone from typing on Wang word processors to expecting our entire world civilization to be online. American Trails has risen to the challenge, starting with some simple Web pages in the early 1990s that became the face of the organization. Several major overhauls later, is the world’s largest online resource for trail planners, builders, managers, and supporters. And it will keep on growing.

The last two decades have seen trail programs develop in every state. Thanks to the Recreational Trails Program (RTP), every state has both funding and some staff time devoted to trails and greenways. American Trails has worked with the states since RTP was authorized in 1991. Our goal is to share information among the states, promote good examples of effective state programs, and encourage public participation. American Trails continues to host the annual meetings of the state administrators.

photo of sign: trail continues through arch

More stewardship as well as access for our public lands

Another important issue is accessibility. American Trails had a seat on the ADA Regulatory Negotiation Committee from 1997-99. In addition, as Colorado’s State Trails Coordinator, I became the State Trail Administrators’ representative on the Committee. Years later, these issues are still grinding their way through the federal agencies and Congressional reviews, but the report of the RegNeg Committee provided the basis of the current guidelines for creating accessible trails on Federal lands.

One aspect of accessibility is simply building better trails. And that is the main goal of the National Trails Training Partnership. Since 2000, American Trails has grown into the leadership role in promoting trails training and education. The important work is preserving the skills of our heritage of experts, while understanding and explaining the new technologies. As the state of the art evolves, so will our need for training.

Another trend has been documenting the benefits of trails, including their role in jobs and the economy. Another benefit that has emerged as a social issue is the role of trails in health and fitness, especially for children. American Trails has been a leader in defining the health, social, and spiritual benefits of trails to an increasingly disconnected world. The promotion of trails as a reconnection with the great outdoors has successfully offered a simple and cost effective means to achieve a healthier community.

We can only guess at the changes the next 25 years will bring. We can expect the politics to become ever more complicated and funding to become more contentious. But I can safely say that all of us who are deeply involved in trails have an abiding optimism about the value and longevity of trails. David W. Larsen of the American Trails board of directors, shared his vision: “The future of trails is toward enhanced mobility offering multiple options for recreation, transportation, and education. American Trails will be an important voice for positive engagement through the political and economic processes.”


Stuart Macdonald manages the American Trails magazine and website, and the National Recreation Trails and National Trails Training programs. He spent 19 years as Colorado's State Trails Coordinator. During 1998-99 he represented the State Trail Administrators on the national committee that proposed regulations for accessible trails. He chaired the National Recreational Trails Committee, which advised the Federal Highway Administration in the first years of the Recreational Trails Program. Stuart grew up in San Diego and his main outdoor interest besides trails is surfing. He has a BA in English from San Francisco State and a Masters in Landscape Architecture from Utah State.

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