Using Partnerships and Cooperation to Get What You Need for Trails

Keynote Address to the Arizona State Trails Conference

by Skye Ridley, Executive Director emeritus, American Trails

One of the major emphases at this conference is on building partnerships and cooperation. And that's what I want to talk about today.

The people who founded American Trails believed strongly in the power of partnerships. The various trail user groups, even at the national level, weren't able to accomplish everything they wanted by working separately, so they worked together to build a new, multi-user trails advocacy organization.

Now, you're familiar partnerships and cooperation. You have multiple-use trails here in Arizona and most of your trails interest groups work together. Your mountain bikers are learning not to scare the horses. Your volunteer groups are learning how to get businesspeople on their boards. You have a successful Adopt-a-Trail program. You have a state trails committee which recommends multiple user groups. You're working with a wide variety of jurisdictions and funding sources and landowners to build your wonderful Arizona Trail.

But, is this enough? Does Arizona already have all the money and all the support and all the volunteers you need for trails? You're pulling in half a million dollars a year for trails through your lottery and the Heritage Fund. That's great, but could you use more? I hear you receive requests for twice as much money as you have available for trail construction every year. And that money can't even be used for maintenance. It sounds like you could use more.

Well, there are ways of getting it. But it takes looking at partnerships and cooperation in new ways. This is a lot like politics; it requires the same skills and methods politicians use: negotiation, forming alliances, knowing when to compromise and when to stand firm, and understanding how to involve others in your vision.

How far can we take this partnership idea? How cooperative are we, really? Aren't we relying on the same old agencies, the same old funding sources, the same old volunteers? How well are we searching for new sources of support for trails? Aren't we missing some opportunities?

Well, of course we are! The whole world, including our government and our society, is constantly changing. We have to be on the lookout for new ideas and new partners all the time!

The most important message I bring you today is this: We in the trails community must become more innovative in looking for partners.

Look around at the other people in this room. Those of us here together, today are a fairly unified group. We share most goals, we agree on most strategies, and we mostly care about the same issues. It's all well and good to meet at a conference and share ideas. But we talk to each other far more than we talk to other people, people we want to convince to support trails! If we really want to increase support for trails, we also need to be meeting new players, making deals with new groups we haven't worked with before, and reaching new markets!

In the past, we've been thinking of partnerships for trails as mostly the agreements between trail user groups and land management agencies. Of course we need to maintain those. However, we need to go beyond that. There are many other sources for help, and now I'm going to give you some suggestions on where to look.

New sources of support for trails


The first areas to consider are transportation agencies and transportation funds.

Now, I know what you're thinking: ISTEA, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, the act that changed our national highway system to a national transportation system, and authorized 10% off the top of the budget for alternative transportation.

They used to say economics was the dismal science, but I think those of us who have tried to understand ISTEA feel now that transportation planning must be even more dismal than economics. How many of us really wanted to learn the intricacies of how the Federal Highway Trust fund is allocated? That's one of the most complex and abysmal governmental processes known to humankind, isn't it? The feds haven't exactly been saying to us, "Here's where the money is, and here's your fair share!" It's been more like jumping through flaming hoops while wearing high heels, hasn't it?


"We in the trails community must become more innovative in looking for partners."

Everyone here has probably been involved in some degree in the process of applying for Enhancements funds, maybe even some STP funds, to build trails. Many of your efforts have been successful, and you've probably gotten some trails or bridges or overpasses built. Congratulations!

If you're like most of us, you hate dealing with ISTEA, you're still confused about parts of it, and you wish you never had to hear the word again, ever! But, if you're like most of us, you probably could have accessed more funds if you had had more energy or known more about the process or had more support. And, if you're like most of us, you aren't very hopeful about continuing to get ISTEA money far into the the future.

This is also true of other sources of transportation funds, at all levels. Most of us in the trails community are not getting all we should be getting from transportation agencies and funds.

Why is that? Where did we miss the boat? I have 5 answers to that question.

1. We aren't good enough at establishing working relationships with transportation agencies. State Departments of Transportation control ISTEA money and state transportation money. In addition, your regional, county, and city transportation departments also have a big influence over transportation funds. Therefore, they all have enormous power over trails. However, very few of us have established good, cooperative, ongoing relationships with those folks. I know that the Arizona Department of Transportation has provided Enhancement funds for pedestrian facilities and bike paths, but we could have gotten much more money. ISTEA could be pouring $41 million dollars into Arizona trails over its 6 year period; you've only obligated $5 million, and you're already 4 years into the program. We could have gotten $21.5 million dollars more for trails and bikeways in Arizona during the last 4 years, in fact, if we had been more proactive. How? Let's ask ourselves some hard questions:

Are we still just filling out our grant applications, crossing our fingers, and nursing a pissed-off attitude about ISTEA? Or would we be better off to improve our understanding of the ISTEA processes, get better at convincing key people in ADOT of the usefulness & popularity of trails, and maybe even conducting an information campaign about trails targeted at the state transportation commissioners?

The best thing we can do in each state to access ISTEA funds, is to develop a strategy for how best to deal with the DOT and then develop a partnership with them. Of course, it goes without saying that we work with them without allowing our goals to be compromised.

2. The second area where we're missing the boat is in Building our case. How good a job have we in the trails community done at convincing agency heads, elected officials, and the public of the value of trails? Have any of us gone to the trouble of figuring out what we have to offer them? Could we be more successful at striking deals for trails?

Not only should we be walking in with the reasons why trails are important (I'll give you some ideas on that in a few minutes), but we should also be citing public opinion polls, bragging about our ability to influence commissioners' votes, talking up the support we've rallied for critical issues, listing the alliances we've built with other advocacy groups, and hinting at the abilities we have to facilitate the compromises needed by the agencies &, ; anything which can be used to get more trails built!

3. The third area where we could improve is in Working at the local levels. We have a shining example right here in Pinal County of what can be done at the local level when transportation folks are convinced that trails are a good idea: Somebody convinced the local Civil Works Department and the Board of Supervisors here that trails mean economic benefits; consequently, this area is blossoming with trails because of an enlightened local government. They're even taking on a special land use permit with the Arizona State Land Dept. to put the Arizona Trail through Oracle!

I also understand that Pima and Maricopa Counties both hired their first trails coordinators in January. Again, this happened because somebody convinced the local government that supporting trails would be of benefit to the community.

How many people in your county or city transportation department or your regional transportation district transportation committee used to think trails were frivolous, but now realizes they're worthwhile, because you convinced them?

4. The fourth area we could concentrate on is Working at the national levels. For all its flaws, ISTEA has brought lots of money for trails. The National Recreational Trails Fund could bring some more. But national programs are in danger: Powerful players are trying to gut the Enhancements program, we're not certain NRTFA will be even partially funded, at only 50% of it's authorized level this year, and the rail banking statute is under very serious attack as well.

How many of you are actively involved in working to preserve and fund these programs? Do you think that because these are national programs, they're irrelevant to trails in Arizona? That is just plain wrong. Here's why:

If Congress tampers with ISTEA by making Enhancements optional at the state level, trails will lose out because most state DOTs won't spend money on trails otherwise.

If NRTFA had been fully funded, you would have been receiving $404,000 a year in Arizona.

And if the rail banking statute is revoked, well, kiss your rail trails goodbye, because very few landowners will allow us to keep those rail corridors intact otherwise.

You've probably heard the saying that All politics is local? Well, Ridley's Corollary is that most federal transportation money gets spent locally. If you aren't establishing relationships with your Congressional delegates and national land management agencies, you're shooting yourselves in the collective foot. If you aren't authorizing your state agency employees to work on national initiatives, and if your trails advocacy organizations aren't actively campaigning for ISTEA and NRTFA and railbanking, then you're missing a very, very important boat.

5. My fifth and last recommendation is about Advocacy from advocates. Land management agency people have usually figured out how to negotiate with local, state, and federal DOTs because they've had no other choice. But, in a way, it's even more important that our trails advocacy organizations establish relationships with DOTs. Those of us who have worked for government agencies know that a recommendation from staff is one thing; a request from citizens, especially influential citizens or large groups, is quite another.

Wetland example: Wetland Wonder Walk, Utah; photo by Roxie Crouch

Wetland example: Wetland Wonder Walk, Utah; photo by Roxie Crouch

Land Trusts

Where else is the trails community missing the cooperation boat?

How about land trusts? Open space preservation is very popular right now. Hundreds of people attended the recent land trust conference in California recently. Land trusts are not only doing good work, but they're often very successful at raising big bucks, too. How can we cooperate with them for our mutual benefit?

On the one hand, land trusts want to preserve open space, sensitive habitat, scenic views, and farmland. Yet it may be hard for them to convince landowners or their donors to fork over what's necessary to preserve yet another hundred acres of land.

I'll give you an example: wetlands. Whoa, "wetlands!?" Now there's a loaded word. Why should I give you money or sell my land just for another hundred acres of wetlands? Organ pipe cactus, now that I could understand. But wetlands? Why, the feds won't let farmers plow their own land because of those damn wetlands! We're talking about swamps here! Don't talk to me about wetlands!

Sound familiar? But what if you were asking for help to buy that land not just for preservation, but also for trails and recreation? Would that increase the number of prospective donors? What if you told the landowner that she could ride her horse through the area even after she put it in trust? Would she be more likely to give the land up? What if the local hiking club knew they could complete that scenic loop trail they've wanted for so long? Would you get more public interest?

It's a simple fact that the more reasons there are to protect land, the more support the land trusts will get. And trails are a good reason. Now, I realize that not all areas are suitable for trails. But most are. And trails are an extremely low impact tradeoff. Compare the effects of a carefully designed trail along one side of a river corridor with, say, a discount store parking lot draining into the stream, or a highway bridge, or even-- I hate to say it-- a popular park with picnic areas, ballfields, and restrooms. I believe that riparians prefer trails. If you can preserve acres of valuable land by allowing trails through 5% of it, I say, do it!

So, if a land trust group knows you could bring thousands of supporters to their cause if they included trails in their plans for that land, they're much more likely to include trails.

Business Community

If we stopped thinking of trails as just another leisure-time activity, and instead thought of them as an integral part of our infrastructure, an amenity as important to quality of life as parks and roads, who else could we interest?

What's your reaction to this phrase: "Cooperating with big business." When you think of big business and the outdoors, do you think only of the Exxon Valdez? Well, I'm asking I you to think more creatively, to look at trails in a business perspective, to think about how the business world can help trails.

We're accustomed to and have even come to expect support from the outdoor equipment industry, and we do need to expand that. But what other businesses could help us?

What about insurance companies and wellness centers? They're giving people all sorts of incentives to exercise. Why shouldn't they support trails as a low-cost alternative that's also good for the entire community?

Telecommunications and utility companies are searching for corridors for fiber optic cables and water pipe routes and power lines. Has anyone here devised a slick strategy for getting those companies involved in the trails movement in Arizona?

By the way, environmental good works is great way of getting businesses to contribute to trails. Trails are like motherhood and apple pie; they're a "neutral," popular cause which almost everybody supports. Many businesses support trails, donate rights of way, and help volunteer trails groups just because they're good citizens. But do any of you have a strategy for attracting such businesses into your efforts here?

There's also another angle for support from business: Have you heard the term "greenwashing"? Exxon is pouring money into Alaska right now because of the Valdez incident, and other companies are involved in similar but less well-known actions. Now, obviously you have to consider such support carefully, and not compromise your principles. But some people say that the only problem with tainted money is that 'tain't nearly enough!

Are there any other companies which stand to gain by the building and protection of trails? What about map companies? The owners of Trails Illustrated, the Colorado company which publishes all those great trail maps, have practically started entire second careers just serving on boards and committees which support trails, parks, and open space. They want to give something back to the movement which helps support their business. Do you have a plan for approaching people like that in Arizona?

Last but not least, the tourism industry. Tourism brings more money to Arizona than any other source. Hiking and mountain bicycling are incredibly popular tourist activities. 2 + 2 = you should be asking companies which make money from tourism to support trails.

It has been my personal experience, and I've also heard this from lots of other people, that many, many want to support a cause as positive as trails. They're just waiting to be asked; they just want someone to show them the benefits. If you have your case for trails prepared well, and if you can show the businesspeople how their business or even just their community will benefit from trails, I guarantee you'll find support.


A subset of the business community, another area where we need to work harder is in partnerships with real estate people. Ahhh, developers, we hate them, don't we? Well, do we? Should we?

Now, none of us like to see our favorite area turned into another Sam's Club or tacky subdivision or 4-lane bypass. On the other hand, I suggest that, as trails advocates, we'd better make our minds up that we're either going to stop that new development completely or, if not that, we've gotta find a way to influence the process so that it's done right, including getting trails built as an integral part of the development. There's a lot more to be gained by understanding the process than by shunning it completely and nursing that attitude I talked about earlier.

What's in it for us? Money, land, and cooperation for building trails and protecting stream corridors.

What's in it for the developers? An increase in the new subdivision's quality which increases property values! We have the statistics, we've got the examples, we can prove it. Everybody wins when trails and greenways are included in development plans.

Example of military partnerships: Volunteer Army Reserves constructing covered bridge on Lake Wobegon Trail, Holdingford, MN; photo by Chuck Wocken

Example of military partnerships: Volunteer Army Reserves constructing covered bridge on Lake Wobegon Trail, Holdingford, MN; photo by Chuck Wocken

The Military

The military is another potential ally in some states, although I don't know the situation here. In many states, there are lots of military lands which don't even have a chain link fence around the perimeter. In the area I used to live, Colorado Springs, both the very conservative Air Force Academy and the Army's Fort Carson have allowed trails to be built through their land. We helped them by providing trails expertise and trails construction, which improved the quality of life on base. They helped us not just by allowing rights of way, but also by providing equipment, lots of strong young volunteers, engineers, and community support. Have you explored such opportunities here?


How about educators? What are we trails people really doing to support environmental education? Have we enlisted teachers and schools in trails projects? Kids like cartoons more than trails unless their parents use trails. But that can change, in school. I used to work on an urban trail next door to a middle school. One teacher there saw the potential for using the trail as an outdoor classroom. Because of that interest, not only did we grow 25 more little trails advocates, we were also able to get grants we never would have gotten otherwise. Education, especially environmental education, is hot right now, and foundations and local governments liked making funds available for that.

Public Works

Another fertile source of partners is public works agencies. Look how far we got in Phoenix, Mesa, and Chandler by understanding flood control canals. The Pima County Flood Control District is also building gorgeous trails with pocket parks and artwork along their canals.

Are you exploring the potential of trails in utility corridors here? Are you building partnerships with utility companies? In Colorado Springs, the power plant manager agreed to have his staff actually build several miles of trail across their land, just so it could be done to his standards. A few years ago, American Trails partnered with the Edison Electric Institute to produce a publication on trails in electric utility lands. Who would have thought we could have gotten a utility institute to support such a project?

Farmers and Ranchers

Next: Do we trails advocates view farmers and ranchers only as obstacles, as road blocks to getting trails built? Well, that's certainly a self-fulfilling prophecy, isn't it? It's true that we often have to think very creatively to get a trail through private land, and it's true that sometimes we'll fail. But we should be able to think of innovative new ways of looking at this situation. What about working with sympathetic ranchers who are leaders in their communities, or perhaps farm organizations to build friendly relations ahead of time, to minimize conflict, and explore common ground? We usually don't meet ranchers till it's time to knock on their doors in our 3-piece suits and demand right-of-ways through their property. What could happen if we had gotten them involved in the trails movement in the first place?

Motorized and nonmotorized

Here's another touchy subject: Motorized trails use. Ah, now here's another group many of us love to hate!

You may already know that American Trails works with all trail user groups. That includes responsible off-highway, motorized vehicle users. Now, this is not the main focus of our work; our mission is simply to help get trails built. But my board and our members believe we have a lot more to gain by keeping the channels of communication open and by collaborating than by splitting off into separate warring factions.

American Trails has had board members from anti-motorized organizations like the American Hiking Society, neutral organizations like the Rails to Trails Conservancy, and pro-motorized organizations like the International Snowmobile Association. We do get into some interesting fist-fights... I mean, discussions, sometimes, but we're committed to working together. The current positive outlook for authorizing funding for the National Recreational Trails Fund, which would bring $ into Arizona, is a great example of why it's better for all of us to work together: the Coalition for Recreational Trails, the group which has spearheaded the authorization of the Fund, is made up of nonmotorized and motorized groups. They've been effective. They collaborate, and we will all benefit if those funds come through.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the organized pro-motorized groups, I should make it clear that most of them are not seeking to expand the areas in which they ride and they don't want to ride in wilderness or fragile areas (they generally just want to preserve access to the areas they already use). The responsible motorized folks are working to cut the noise, abolish irresponsible OHV advertising, and most importantly stop irresponsible OHV riding.

In addition, in my experience, whether you agree with them or not, the motorized community is better funded, better organized, and better at lobbying than any other trail user group. If we're not learning from them and stealing... I mean, adopting, their good ideas, then we're missing another opportunity. Non-motorized interest groups could learn a lot about fundraising, publicity and image campaigns, industry support, and so on from the putt-putts, as one of my contacts calls them.

In addition, if we turn our backs on the responsible motorized groups because of the actions of the bad eggs, then we're also ignoring other own bad eggs&, ;the equestrians who allow their horses to knock out water bars, the backpackers who still build fire rings in overused areas, the hikers who cut switchbacks, the mountain bicyclists who ride recklessly... you know I could go on an on.

Let's join forces, not cast stones!

What's next?

So, what should we do now?

First, we need to spread the word about trails to "The Unbelievers." Do your DOT people and state legislators and business associations and county commissioners and ranchers know the following Five Fun Facts about trails? I think these are the five most important points that we need to get across to people as part of our public education effort.

Fact #1 Trails are used for transportation, not just recreation, if they're available. "If you build it, they will come." It's true: we hardly ever see underused trails. We know from experience that if we build trails which are attractive and pleasant, people will use them to get to work, school, and shopping.

Fact #2 Trails are low-impact. They can be put almost anywhere. The amount of land needed by trails is minuscule compared to train, plane, and automobile routes. Trails can fit into small spaces, they can be built into utility corridor access roads, and they don't have to be sited in pristine greenways to be useful. The environmental impact of trails is also minuscule in comparison to other transportation facilities. No trail will ever be even remotely as intrusive as a highway or a parking lot, and if trails are designed right, their environmental impact can be almost minimal. They often seven serve as incentives to clean up abused streams, improve wildlife habitat, and preserve formerly unseen and unloved ecosystems.

Fact #3 The comparative cost of trails is also tiny. Where else can you buy a public works facility which can be used for transportation and recreation, by anyone, of any ability, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, without any special equipment, alone or in a group, all for only $5,000 to $100,000 [for a mile of trail]? Do you know how much one public swimming pool costs? do you know how much one mile of an extra lane on a highway costs? Trails are cheap, and you don't have to "improve" them with irrigated swards of grass and expensive trailside facilities.

Fact #4 Properly-sited trails do not contribute to vandalism and crime. Those of us in this room already know this, but you'll be surprised at how many otherwise-well-informed people still believe that criminals and druggies are going to gather on the trails more than on our streets. I always tell people:if you're worried about robbers or vandals getting to your house, by all means, don't build it near a road! Don't let your local officials tell you that crime and vandalism are reasons to not build trails; crime and vandalism are reasons to patrol trails and protect trail users just as much as we protect people on the streets and in parks.

Fact #5 Trails are non-controversial. According to a recent poll published in Bicycling Magazine, 70% of adults want local governments to include pedestrian and bicycling pathways in transportation planning. 56% of adults want local governments to devote more funds for pathway in their areas. Trails are nonpartisan, they're cheap, they're all-American, and they're always positive good news.

Your own Heritage Fund, passed by initiative in 1990, was approved by 65% of the people who voted in that election, and your Heritage Alliance, consisting of over 200 organizations, have showed up to provide overwhelming support for the fund three times since then, whenever your Legislature was considering re-appropriating the money.

It's clear that trails are popular enough that politicians can support them without a great deal of risk. In return the trails community should be supporting those politicians whenever possible.

And remember: it is possible to support a politician's position on trails without having to support their other positions.

If you need background on these five fun facts, I have publications which will help. The National Park Service puts out their Economic Benefits of Rivers Trails and Greenways free of charge. I also have copies of a new Colorado study of economic benefits and one from Santa Rosa, CA. If you're interested, stop by the American Trails booth later in the conference.

The nature of cooperation

I want to clarify something right now: the nature of true cooperation. True cooperation implies that there's some benefit to everyone involved.

True cooperation doesn't just mean taking from agencies or organizations or individuals; we have to offer something valuable in return, and we have to make sure the other parties understand the value of what we offer. We know that trails are enormously valuable in many ways. But are we driving that point home to others?

On the other hand, true cooperation doesn't mean we roll over on the issues, either. We have to find out what our rights are, figure out the procedures, and then act decisively and firmly.

I realize this is hard work I'm talking about. Figuring out how to get what you want -- real activism-- is hard work. But we have more to gain by figuring out what the other side wants and needs, and trading that for what we want and need, than by remaining aloof or just hoping people will do the right thing.


In conclusion, then, the trails community must find new ways to collaborate, and we must find new partners in our quest to build and protect trails. Not just because of budget cutbacks and increased development, but because we should always be growing and finding better methods of advocacy. We need to think of every person, business, organization, and agency we come across as a possible partner. We need to figure out what the trails community offers them and what they can offer trails, then be courageous about getting in there and approaching them. This is how we're going to get trails built in the year 2000.

By the way, I want you to know that I'm not just referring to Arizona here. All of us, including American Trails, need to think more creatively, do better research, and find new partners. While I'm here at your wonderful conference, if you have ideas about how American Trails can help you better, I want you to stop me and tell me about them. We need your ideas and we want to hear from you. You're the Americans we're building trails for.

But most of all, I want to thank you folks who are attending the conference. And I want to remind you of this: What you do, as volunteers or government employees or elected officials or community leaders, to build trails, is a noble thing that's going to increase our property values, preserve our history, help clean up our air, get us back in touch with nature, make our cities more livable, give us back our opportunities for adventure, and make life better for all Americans. That's the legacy you're helping protect, and I thank you very, very much.

Happy Trails!

About the Author

American Trails celebrates decades of working on behalf of all trail interests. Our website is one of the world's most comprehensive online sources for planning, building, designing, funding, managing, enhancing, and supporting trails, greenways, and blueways.

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