Forming and Running State or Regional Trail Coalitions – Important Points and Practices

Have you ever wondered how to create a trails coalition in your state or region? This article shares some pointers and discusses the results of a nationwide survey of trails coalitions conducted by American Trails in February 2023.

by Bob Walker, Chair, Montana Trails Coalition, American Trails Staff

What is a trails coalition?

For the purpose of this article, a trails coalition is a private collaboration of diverse trail organizations/interests that work together to find common ground and primarily address an array of local, regional, statewide, and/or federal trail programs, issues, needs, and solutions. Typically, a coalition may work with local governments, their state legislature, and federal legislators either in a lobbying capacity or sharing of information with local, state, or federal decision makers. A coalition is a network of organizations, and sometimes just regular people that work together to achieve a common greater goal. More people and groups help to broaden the promotion of events and push messages. A diverse coalition speaks in many voices to different audiences. It is the perfect place for brainstorming ideas and exchanging breaking news. In addition to private sector representatives and businesses, a coalition might include public agency staff/representatives. For this purpose, they do not include State Recreational Trails Advisory Committees as required by federal law Title 12, Chapter 206, Recreational Trails Program.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation: “Characteristics of successful coalitions include strong leadership, open channels of communication, and ways to resolve disagreements. A key to a successful coalition is the early identification of common goals and benefits of working together. An important consideration for adopting specific coalition activities is to identify some short-term outcomes.”

A few examples

In February of 2023, American Trails conducted a survey of all 50 states requesting information on which have statewide or regional trails coalitions. Twelve have statewide or regional coalitions while two of these are multi-state. Those that reported having coalitions include Alaska, Maine, Montana, New York, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington and Washington, D.C. Following is brief information provided by four of those coalitions.

Montana Trails Coalition (MTC)

In 2016, discussions between the Montana State Trails Advisory Committee, which advises the state about the use of Recreational Trails Program funds, Montana Office of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and federal and state agencies identified the need for a private, non-profit organization comprised of an array of diverse state and regional trails and recreation organizations.

Thus in 2017 arose the MTC. The MTC is organized as a 501(c)(3) and the board of directors currently include 14 diverse statewide and regional trails-and recreation related organizations. Advisors include the major state and federal land managing agencies. Through a series of facilitated sessions, the MTC identified the common issues of inadequate funding, information sharing and education needs, consistency across area and agency boundaries, and the need for diverse organizations to find common ground to solve issues. In 2019, the MTC was successful in convincing the state legislature to appropriate $1 million per year for a state trails grant program, and in 2021 an additional $1 million per year from the state recreational marijuana state tax. The MTC provides weekly emails to trail and recreation interests throughout the state and, during Montana legislative sessions, provides reports of trails and recreation bills under consideration.

The Nebraska Trails Foundation operates similar to other coalitions but primarily to promote and facilitate development of trails in Nebraska by receiving tax deductible funds and holding them for trails across Nebraska. The Foundation Board is comprised of volunteers representing budget, fund raising and marketing experts, and transportation and tourism representatives. They are organized as a 501c3. They originally came into existence to provide a 501c3 organization to assist the Great Plains Trails Network in receiving tax deductible donations. The Foundation does not have paid memberships. They advocate for trails with state legislators and congress but do not lobby.

photo credit: Kinsley King, Chase Middle School
Kings Mountain Gateway; North Carolina

Kings Mountain Gateway; North Carolina

North Carolina’s Great Trails State Coalition is a broad-based group of diverse organizations, including nonprofits, local government, industry partners, and other supporters advocating for increased state investment in all types of muscle-powered trails statewide including hiking, paddle, mountain bike, equestrian, and paved. The Coalition’s goal is to secure sustained state investment in trail projects across the state, through appropriations for trail programs and projects. There are more than 70 members as of 2023. They were first successful in convincing their General Assembly to designate 2023 as North Carolina Year of the Trail. They also convinced their General Assembly to appropriate $29.5 million for 12 authorized State Trails! The Coalition remains committed to state funding for all trails, so they are advocating for the creation of a Great Trails State Fund of $50.5 million for local and regional trail projects!

The Washington State Trails Coalition, founded in 1999, organized with the purpose of providing an effective and interactive forum centering on protecting, promoting, and enhancing a statewide system of trails including both motorized and non-motorized outdoor recreation and transportation. The Coalition’s events are open to anyone with a passion for trails, including both motorized and non-motorized, urban and wilderness, outdoor recreation, and transportation. They bring together trail professionals from around the state at a biennial trails conference and off-year trails caucus. The Coalition’s Board of Directors includes ten dedicated people.

Here are some basic steps and things to keep in mind as you start establishing your coalition.

Take time to develop your Bylaws

Develop Bylaws carefully making it clear how the Coalition will operate and the method of making decisions. Bylaws typically include the Name and Address of the organization, Purpose including the Vision and Mission statements, Prohibited Activities, Membership, Board of Directors powers and duties, (if organized as such), Officers, Committees, Finance, Compensation and Contracts, Indemnification, and Amendments process.

As important as it is to carefully develop Bylaws, don’t let that process take all the Coalition’s time for an extended period. To keep things moving and retain the interest of members, discuss specific topics, projects, and programs the Coalition might initiate. Keep it simple and limit it to 1-3 points. That might include fundraising for the Coalition, funding needs for trails and or recreation, information sharing and education opportunities, assisting local trail organizations, etc. Remember that sometimes less controversial, broader positions will attract more diverse and more organizations to your coalition. For sample Bylaws, contact those coalitions described above.

Mission and Vision statements

In your early planning for your coalition, take time to develop clear and concise Vision and Mission statements. These will define to future members, the public, and donors the reason for your coalition’s existence and goals.

Your Vision statement should outline long-term goals and aspirations for the future. A coalition’s mission statement should include one or two strong, well-written sentences that talk about why the coalition exists, the value it brings to members and the public, the core beliefs that drive its work, and what sets it apart.

As an example, the Montana Trails Coalition's Vision statement is “Outdoor Access for All - Trails for All Montanans and Visitors”. The Mission statement is “Work together as partners to promote, improve, and support trails for their recreation, transportation, resource protection, and health benefits for all Montanans”.

Understanding non-profit filing status

The state trails coalitions surveyed filed for 501(c)3 status. However, your organization might consider other filing statuses depending on your purpose, vision, and mission. As per the Internal Revenue Code, 501(c)3 is a nonprofit organization for religious, charitable, scientific, and educational purposes. Donations to 501(c)3 are tax-deductible. Whereas on the other hand, 501(c)4 is a social welfare group, and donations to 501(c)4 are not tax-deductible. One of the most significant operational differences between 501(c)(3) public charities and 501(c)(4) organizations is in the lobbying and political activity area. 501(c)(4) organizations do not have a lobbying limit and can devote all their activities to lobbying in furtherance of its exempt purposes. No organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). Spending anything less than five percent of the nonprofit's total budget is minor lobbying, while spending anything over the 16% to 20% range is substantial lobbying.

How to apply to become a nonprofit

From the IRS web page: “To apply for recognition by the IRS of exempt status under IRC Section 501(c)(3), you must use either Form 1023 or Form 1023-EZ. All organizations seeking exemption under IRC Section 501(c)(3) can use Form 1023, but certain small organizations can apply using the shorter Form 1023-EZ. Go to the Eligibility Worksheet to see if you qualify to file Form 1023-EZ.” Organizations wanting to become a 501(c)(4) should use Form 1024-a. The Montana Trails Coalition used Form 1023-EZ since it was comparatively simple, was completed by a board member with no legal training, and the cost for filing in 2018 was only $275!

Plan and organize your coalition for the long term

Presuming you succeed with your initial programs, keep the energy alive in your organization. Success can be wonderful, but it can also result in a loss of enthusiasm by some members if and when your currently identified needs are met. Continue to plan strategically for the future. Periodically, every 3 – 5 years, conduct a strategic planning exercise to review the successes, failures, and changing challenges and needs of your organization and broad programs. Ideally, your coalition will thrive for years, based on trust and a belief in the strength that comes from working together.

Board of Directors. If you choose to operate under a Board of Directors, make a list of all the possible organizations that might want to take part. Use your contacts and Internet searches to seek out organizations that work on similar issues. In Montana, the Recreational Trails Program manager and members of the State Trails Advisory Committee provided an excellent array of potential organizations that might be interested. Contact the appropriate decision-maker at each organization. Explain the issues and ask them to sign on. And as with any project, follow-up is critical!

A Board of Directors must work cooperatively, and members must be willing to listen, learn from others, and understand, no matter if their agendas sometimes are in opposition to others. Finding common ground is a critical step in forming a successful coalition. Choose Board members carefully and avoid “grandstanders” and “podium seekers”. Each Board member’s input is as important as others!

information

Make room in your coalition for anyone who shares your goals. Political diversity is often a wonderful thing in a coalition!

Membership models

The aforementioned examples of coalitions exhibit a variety of membership models. These include 1) an array of business and private non-profits and agencies but without a Board of Directors, 2) an array of individuals with trail and financial expertise as a board but without broad membership, and finally 3) a tiered membership example. The membership model you adopt must meet the needs of your organization, its purpose, mission, and vision!

The North Carolina Great Trails State Coalition uses the model in which an array of business and private non-profits and agencies are members but do not have a Board of Directors.

The Nebraska Trails Foundation uses a model with a Board of Directors comprised of volunteers representing budget, fundraising and marketing experts, and transportation and tourism representatives. They accept donations but do not employ a paid membership model.

The Montana Trails Coalition uses the tiered membership model, has a Board of Directors, and members pay annually an array of dues or donation amounts. According to MemberClicks, tiered dues can increase membership value. The biggest challenges faced by this model are maintaining an up-to-date membership list, mailing system, and differentiating among membership or donation levels, and making it clear to members. This pricing structure is more complex. The positive reason is it allows you to create tailored benefits and allows for vastly increased revenue from potential big donors.

In a flat-rate membership model, members pay or donate the same amount for their membership which makes managing member dues simpler. The downside of a flat rate is you could be missing out on substantial revenue by not having something to offer members who are willing to pay or donate more. Check out this article on Membership Dues 101 for more information.

Communication is critical

Communicating successfully with your board or coalition members requires openness and positivity. Remembering simple strategies can help create great team communication. From The Non-Profit Leadership Center: “Just as relationships in life are often better when approached with a smile rather than a scowl, the same is true in business. When kindness is at the forefront of our minds and daily interactions, we focus on the power of “we” over “I.” When we prioritize positive interactions with others, we can improve team communication. It’s often the smallest actions that make the most significant difference. Everyone wants to feel that their contributions matter and that they matter.”

Clear and timely communication is critical to success. In today’s world, emails form the primary tool for providing timely information, requesting input, following up on activities, and scheduling meetings. In addition, count on phone calls for crucial follow-ups. Ask all your members to help circulate emails to their counterparts. Also, remember that a simple email or phone call asking a board member or other counterpart “How are you doing” can show a willingness to foster partnership, camaraderie, and trust.

Finally, the most important feature of an effective and productive communication strategy is to be clear, open, and honest. Honesty shows authenticity and integrity, essential foundations for true collaboration. Open and honest communication leads more quickly to a mutual understanding and respect for a difference in views, interests, and needs!

Stay organized and stay connected

Set up a distribution list, mailing list, or list serve for everyone from the coalition and other interests to exchange news and updates. Send emails regularly with links to relevant news articles and other information.

Schedule regular or semi-regular Board meetings or conference calls to discuss projects, exchange information, create smaller groups to tackle specific needs, and brainstorm. In today’s world, ZOOM and other formats offer alternatives to costly and time-consuming travel. However, face-to-face interaction sometimes allows for enhanced open communication and understanding. Make the extra effort to find a time that works well for a lot of people in the coalition, rather than just scheduling something that’s convenient for you.

Web Pages for State/Regional Trail Coalitions

More Resources from American Trails

Did we miss something? If this article could be improved, or if you are aware of a trail coalition that is not yet listed below or on our Resources by State page, please let us know! Just email us at [email protected].

About the Authors

Since 2018, Bob has served as the chair of the Montana Trails Coalition. Bob was the prior chair of the American Trails Board from 1992 to 1996, among other endeavors in the trails and outdoor industry.

Education:

  • MS Degree, University of Idaho, Fishery Management, 1973
  • BS Degree, Iowa State University, Fish & Wildlife Ecology, 1970

Experience:

  • Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, State Trails Programs Coordinator, 1991 – 2007
  • Iowa Department of Natural Resources, State Trails Programs Coordinator, 1988 – 1991
  • Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Coordinator, Statewide County Conservation Activities, 1983 - 1988
  • Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Land Management Supervisor, 1981 - 1983

Other Experience:

  • Member, State Trails Advisory Committee, 2022
  • Member, USDA Forest Service, Missouri River Resource Advisory Council, 2017 - 2022
  • Chair, Western Montana Resource Advisory Council, BLM, 2010- 2017
  • Chair, National Association of OHV Program Managers, 2003 – 2007
  • Chair, American Trails, 1992 – 1996
  • Member, Legislative Committee, American Trails, 1989 - 1992
  • Chair, International Association of Snowmobile Administrators, 1988 – 1990

Awards

  • Montana State Parks and Recreation Board’s Champion Award, 2019
  • National Association of State Park Directors, President’s Award, 2014
  • International OHV Administrator’s Association Hall of Fame Award, 2013
  • Montana Recreation & Parks Association, Professional Excellence Award, 2008
  • National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council, National Service Award, 2007
  • Montana State Parks, Award of Dedication and Excellence, 2005
  • American Trails, Montana Trails Advocate Award, 2002

Memberships:

  • American Motorcyclist Association
  • American Trails
  • Bike Walk Helena
  • Bike Walk Montana
  • Capital Trail Vehicle Association
  • Last Chance Riders Motorcycle Club
  • Montana Snowmobile Association
  • Montana Trails Coalition
  • Montana Trails, Recreation and Park Association, Advisory Board
  • Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association
  • Montana Wilderness Association
  • Montana Wildlife Federation
  • Our Montana
  • Prickly Pear Land Trust, Don’t Fence Me In Trail Run & Harvest Moon Ball Committees
  • Rails-To-Trails Conservancy

Contact: [email protected]

More articles by these authors

More articles in this category

River Walk to Creekfront: Community Perseverance Pays Off

posted May 7, 2018

Downtown San Antonio's River Walk draws over nine million visitors per year.

1,648 views • posted 11/27/2023