Trails are invaluable assets to any community, and when it comes to procuring funding, building coalitions, providing the best trail access, and more, trail research is one of the best tools available for showing that worth.
Research and data on trails are critical to show the impact and benefits of trails. The trails community is witnessing unprecedented growth and a shift in leadership away from Federal agencies, toward foundation and private investment driving trail development. These growing efforts would benefit from sound analyses and aggregation of trail-related data and information to define how trails impact America. This highlights the need to develop the tools that allow a dynamic trail community to come together, professionalize and standardize, document our value and impact, and articulate this value and impact to public leaders, the outdoor industry, and other industries that unwittingly benefit from trails.
There is a perception that trails just exist. If we do not help our decision makers, investors, and citizens understand that trails are critical infrastructure requiring consistent, ongoing funding and maintenance, they will simply disappear or degrade over time. We must make it apparent to citizens, leadership, and investors that trails improve the quality of life for all Americans.
Recent data from the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) calculated that outdoor recreation generated $734 billion in economic activity in 2016, surpassing other sectors such as agriculture, petroleum and coal. Outdoor recreation makes up 2.2% percent of U.S. GDP, supports 5.2 million jobs and is growing faster than the economy as a whole. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, trail centered activities directly generate over $594 billion and nearly 3.5 million jobs. We know that on federally managed land, outdoor recreation contributes more than $64.6 billion to the national economy and supports more than 623,000 jobs annually, but we don’t even know the economic impacts of State and local trail-focused outdoor recreation. It could be huge!
Trails and trail systems are in constant flux; we need to track these changes to stay current and to leverage the historical context of trails. Identifying ways to share the burden of staying current while retaining relevancy and connectivity to users, user communities, and trails managing agencies will be key to the success of trail research programs. Below are 5 key ways that coordinated research can help to build a strong trails community.
1) Research helps us create better access to trails for more people. Currently research is playing a big role in making natural surface trails more accessible for people with disabilities. One example is an ongoing study from the Oregon Institute of Technology using naturally occurring volcanic ash mixed with cement or lime to create a firm and stable surface for wheelchairs. Research such as this can help make more environmentally friendly trail surfaces that are available to all trail users. Research can also make trails more economically feasible for some communities, while still making sure the trails will be accessible to all.
2) Research showing the benefits to trail adjacent businesses can be used to make business owners into trail advocates. Strong united voices can make all the difference when fighting for more and better trails, and bringing business owners into the fold can amplify those voices to policy makers. The Continental Divide Trail Coalition commissioned a study in 2019 in which small business owners along the trail resoundingly agreed that the trail is vital to their operations. Providing studies such as this directly to business owners can convince them to invest their time, energy, and financial support into creating more trails.
3) Showing how often trails are being utilized can help bring more funding to trails. In 2018 American Trails published an article about the use of trail counters on Pennsylvania trails. The article points out, “While manual count collection provides a snapshot of data at a particular moment in time, automated counters gather data 24/7, providing an annual profile of trail usage. For example, on the Panhandle Trail just outside of Pittsburgh, trail use is 50% higher during the weekend compared to mid-week, informing trail managers that the trail is used predominantly for leisure and recreation. From January to September 2018, 800,000 people were counted on these trails, with northeastern Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna Heritage Trail having the greatest number of visitors counted at over 85,000— that’s nearly 10,000 trail users counted per month!” This information shows that these trails are being used, and state investment in the trail infrastructure is benefiting tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians per year.
4) Healthcare professionals are increasingly recognizing the power of trails in fighting issues such as heart disease and diabetes thanks to research directly linking trails to healthier living. This has led to partnerships and coalitions that include traditional trail advocates and the healthcare community working together to use trails to create healthier citizens. As stated in a past American Trails article on the subject, “The results (of a 2014 study) showed that those living within less than a mile of the new trails were getting on average 45 minutes more exercise a week after the trails were built than they were before they had that available infrastructure. The amount of increased exercise per week went down the further away people lived from the new trails, but benefits were still seen up to those who lived 2.5 miles away.” Research such as this is vital in getting the healthcare industry to invest in trails.
5) Research allows us to show how much funding is actually needed for trails. Recently Tyler Ray of American Hiking Society released an open letter, co-signed by a large diverse group of trail organizations, asking congress to adequately fund the United States Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account. Attached to this letter are concrete numbers showing the funds needed. These numbers represent research on both the needs of these federal agencies and programs as well as how much money would actually be needed to adequately address these needs. Showing these numbers makes it more difficult for policy makers to ignore the desperate need for funding of these services, and it doesn’t allow congress to low-ball their own estimates, as the research has already been done by the trails industry.
Published April 2020
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