The Longest Trail Starts Here

We usually set out on a trail knowing how far we’ll go and where it ends. However, the journey to secure reliable funding for our trails and public lands is the trail that never ends.

by Stuart Macdonald, Trail Consultant, American Trails

We usually set out on a trail knowing how far we’ll go and where it ends. However, the journey to secure reliable funding for our trails and public lands is the trail that never ends.

If you look back at all the alerts and action items we’ve sent out, it seems like funding has become a perpetual crisis. Maybe that’s an accurate description for the years since the last funding bill for transportation and trails expired in 2009. Even the military is under pressure to justify its expenditures and find ways to save money. We’re in the same situation with bike/ped facilities and parks and active transportation.

Public priorities have a way of shifting dramatically. For years the Land and Water Conservation Fund was a huge support for trails as well as open space. In past generations, there was more focus on funding for agencies that care for federal lands, while the states invested their own funds in parks and rail trails.

What has changed is our dependence on the federal gas tax to save all of these programs. But here again, it is the case of the shrinking pie. With less and less money coming into the highway users trust fund, Congress can’t fix the leak without a political firestorm. As a result, we are now competitors with every other transportation interest.

It’s hard to argue that bikeways are more important than road bridges. Or that trails are more important than highway safety programs. But that is exactly the arena where we have to become more convincing. As a result, many advocates have focused on getting trails accepted as standard elements of comprehensive transportation systems.

We have to argue that our programs are all about “safe routes,” whether to school or to jobs, shopping, and recreation. Our goals, too, are economic security, safer neighborhoods, healthier kids. Better access to parks and recreation is a key national policy, and a public health goal, but it’s also a transportation issue. The goal of “complete streets” is just another aspect of accessibility. Our slogan might as well be “Transportation for All Americans.”

We’re all on this trail together, and the landscape is changing as we move forward. Learning from all kinds of interests, and focusing on our common goal, is still the way to a healthier future.

About the Author

Stuart Macdonald spent 19 years as Colorado's State Trails Coordinator. He is the editor of American Trails Magazine. During 1998-99, he represented 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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