The (Almost) Perfect Trails Community

In new communities the private sector and market forces have helped preserve natural resources while offering outstanding recreational trails.

by Robert (Bob) Searns, Owner, Robert Searns and Associates, Inc.

My daughter called up and said: "Dad, we want to go camping in the mountains and I can't find any available reservations. You never made reservations when we were kids— what should I do?" Sadly, I did not have an answer. Make a reservation? She has to "get permission" to head for the national forests for a couple days of solace away from the city? That struck a chord and it did not have a pleasant ring.

True, it meant that many more people were going out and enjoying our public lands, but it also meant that even Colorado's vast wilds were beyond capacity. It also represents a trend of diminishing public resources in a society where the people need and crave unspoiled outdoor places but where leaders and policy makers have set other priorities.

Contrast this with how my wife and I spent our Independence Day weekend. We had the opportunity to visit one of the nation's finest examples of a planned community: Black Butte Ranch in Central Oregon.

Planned over thirty years ago, this place is amazing! Nestled in thousands of acres of privately-owned Ponderosa forests and meadows abutting national forest, the homes and other buildings are almost invisible. The community has 18 miles of paved multi-use trails plus many hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian routes nearby. Cattle and horses still roam the preserved meadowlands, and trails cut through the golf courses in a carefully integrated way that says each is equally important. Nearly every home in this community abuts the trail system, and the bicycle is the predominate mode of travel.

Black Butte Ranch supports two bicycle rental outlets as well as available equestrian trail rides. We biked, hiked, rode horses, river rafted, and mountain climbed to our heart's content. Black Butte was near perfect, but I wondered what will happen when, inevitably, fire— a part of the natural cycle of forests— will strike those high-end homes and who will pay for the damage. I also wondered what will be left for those less able to afford living in, or visiting such communities.

Indeed, there must be a place communities like this, places where the private sector and market forces have helped to preserve a resource and offer outstanding recreational trail facilities. When planned, Black Butte was way ahead of its time. It is a model for harnessing the forces of prosperity to conserve a resource. Across the nation, many other similar projects are underway or in the planning phase— not just mountain get-aways but in our urban areas as well.

photo credit: Bob Searns
Trails co-exist with golf courses in this Oregon community

Trails co-exist with golf courses in this Oregon community

Smart developers are clustering the buildings, preserving the forests and wetlands, and creating trails and greenways. They have found that being "green" means making "green" and lots of it. I won't bore you with the statistics but you can visit American Trails' website for links to dozens of studies that demonstrate the economic and commercial value of conservation and trails.

Back home, our daughter, could not get the time off to visit Black Butte. Like many recent collage graduates, she considers herself lucky to have a near minimum wage job and must make do with few vacation days. Many others in our nation are far worse off. People in this circumstance will find it very difficult just to pay for food and shelter, let alone fork out the room rent for a 5-day visit to Black Butte Ranch.

Indeed it is something to strive for but though they may work just as hard or harder, a broad cross-section of Americans must rely on public lands and public facilities for their equally needed time in the outdoors. They too need access to the forests and mountains as well as places closer in and nearby.

In some places, like Detroit, MI, hit hard by a failing automobile industry or Buffalo, NY, a metro area in dire fiscal straits, it is especially hard to find funds to create trails and greenways. Yet, leaders like Tom Woiwode and the Southeastern Michigan Community Foundation are meeting the challenge.

Nationally, the public sector financial situation is increasingly dismal as programs are cut and, worse still, revenue sources such as offshore drilling royalties are quashed.

Just when intuition might suggest the need to invest in changing some of these trends we see a national economy challenged by rising energy costs, war, deficits, and outsourcing. This seems to be engendering a kind of "triage" decision making where programs like The Land and Water Conservation Fund begin to appear trivial and thus can more easily be terminated.

Crisis mode notwithstanding, these trends go against American values. Opinion polls— locally and nationally— repeatedly show that Americans support the stewardship of our open spaces, our public lands, our air and our water and greenways and trails. I believe that not only is the desire there, but the resources are there too. What we need is the leadership!

A century ago, the American landscape faced similar challenges as forests and streams were devastated in the path of an industrializing nation. Teddy Roosevelt and his Chief U.S. Forester, Gifford Pinchot, responded with a new American ethic for public lands. They greatly expanded the national park system and set aside over 150 million acres of public lands. A passionate outdoorsman and hunter, Roosevelt knew both the human value and the spiritual value of conservation. He stepped forward as a bold reformer able to reconcile the competing interests of resource exploitation and conservation.

As we move into the 21st Century, the time is right for a new conservation movement, for local action. We need not only Roosevelt's remote wild places, we need places closer to home— places that are part of our daily lives, not just an abstract notion but something in our daily landscape. We need to care for not only the mountain tops, but for the stream in our back yard. Where appropriate, these lands must be freely accessible with foot paths, bike trails, and paddleways. Indeed the greenways and trails movement can be a rallying cry for this next wave— carrying on and expanding upon the public lands legacy started over a century ago.

We can help build that leadership at the local level, create projects, build partnerships and set examples that will enable others to do the same. We can build partnerships with the private sector as well as decision makers in the public sector but we must make our voices heard, speaking not only with words but with examples that demonstrate what can be done.

A special characteristic of the United States is that every citizen is a landowner. We are all owners of the legacy of public lands left by Roosevelt and others, as well as the environmental infrastructure that sustains us. These open spaces and resources provide more than places of recreation and renewal, they contain the floods and fires, they provide vital resources, and they provide for our material and economic survival.

This is our property and no one or no group has the right to exploit it to our detriment. This is where we need to stand our ground. How we treat these places is ultimately about how we treat each other.

About the Author

Robert Searns has a four-decade history of visualizing, planning, and getting trails and greenway projects built. He was Project Director of Denver’s Platte River and Mary Carter Greenways—both national-award-wining projects. He helped plan the Grand Canyon National Park Greenway, played a key role on the Memphis Wolf River Greenway, and authored the Commerce City, CO Walk, Bike, Fit plan. He has written for Planning, Landscape Architecture, LA China, and American Trails Magazines and has served as Editor-in-Chief of Trails and Beyond Magazine. He chaired American Trails and was a founder of The World Trails Network as well as being a delegate to the America’s Great Outdoors White House conclave. His current book is Beyond Greenways: The Next Step For City Trails and Walking Routes, published in 2023 by Island Press. He resides, writes, hikes, and bikes near Denver, Colorado.

Contact: [email protected]

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