A time of transition and momentum for trails during Hike the Hill 2020

By Kathy DeCoster, PNTS Advocacy and Policy Director, and Samantha Haas, PNTS Communications Coordinator

More than 100 people representing 40 trail organizations and advocates from throughout the country traveled to Washington, D.C. this February to “Hike the Hill.” Now in its 23rd year, Hike the Hill® is a joint effort between the Partnership for the National Trails System (PNTS) and the American Hiking Society (AHS) aimed at making congressional and federal agency leaders more aware of funding and other needs that sustain the National Trails System (NTS).  

The event began on a bittersweet note with a reception honoring the retirement of Gary Werner, longtime PNTS Executive Director. The reception was a wonderful gathering of trail advocates, agency partners and others celebrating Gary’s exceptional career over many years.

PNTS Board President Barney Mann, left, and TLC Chair RG Absher, right, present a quilt of all 30 national scenic and historic trails to Gary Werner, far right, during his retirement reception. Photo by Kathy DeCoster.

“I really do think this is a celebration of us as a community. And the kind of kindness that you’re displaying toward me tonight is simply a recognition of the kind of kindness and dedication and generosity you all give every single day to what you’re doing. And I honor you and applaud you for doing that. We’re all part of this together and we’re going to continue together, it’s just that I’ll be in a different role. And we have very good people working to come along after me to make that progress.” 

– Gary Werner

The trails community also welcomed Karen Crossley, Interim Executive Director, and Kathy DeCoster, PNTS Advocacy and Policy Director. Learn more about PNTS leadership updates from the Transition Task Force here.

From February 9-13, 2020, we met with leaders of three federal land management agencies, congressional staff, and members of Congress to discuss the opportunities for and challenges facing our NTS and the need for increased funding and enhanced partnerships. Some of the main issues or pieces of legislation discussed include full and dedicated funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, increasing and allocating funding for the national trails, and addressing the maintenance backlog across public lands, including the U.S. Forest Service deferred maintenance, through the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act.

Judy Bittner, Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance, addresses NPS Acting Director David Vela, not pictured, during a meeting. Photo by Samantha Haas.

PNTS and AHS also held a Hike the Hill Party at the REI D.C. flagship store on Tuesday, February 11, for local trail leaders, organizational partners, congressional staff, and agency officials to celebrate public lands and trails, beginning with a land acknowledgement. 

Sarah Cawley, Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, and Kelly Wiener, Florida Trail Association, with a map of the National Trails System during the REI party. Photo by Samantha Haas.

“I’m just thrilled with your enthusiasm, and it makes my heart sing how you all are growing the next generation — and it’s not perfunctory, it’s real. You all are a real example of shared stewardship and how we build capacity and we build sustainability and we really, really get serious about what’s important for our future.“

– Chief Vicki Christiansen

Gary Werner received a USFS door knocker from Chief Christiansen. Photo by Samantha Haas.

In attendance at the Hike the Hill Party for the second year in a row was Vicki Christiansen, the new Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Christiansen thanked students from the Environmental Charter High School in Los Angeles, CA (hosted by the Pacific Crest Trail Association), for sharing their voices in the meeting the day before. “Obed said he lives in a place where there are far more buildings than trees, and he did express that his work on the trail was a little more hard work than he thought, but he said, ‘I don’t remember complaining, because I felt I was doing something that made a difference,’ and you were. Way to go,” Christiensen said. “And Jade also noted the hard labor that she wasn’t necessarily expecting, but the rewards that came with that. She talked about the ‘mountain goats at day and the stars during the night’ was something so incredible she could never imagine. She was sharing her personal experience about what it is to connect with our great outdoors, and to be part of something bigger than any one of ourselves.”  

Agency meetings

The previous day, USFS Chief Vicki Christiansen had met with many trail representatives to announce the agency’s 10 Year Trail Shared Stewardship Challenge and hear from trail advocates about work they are already doing that can help advance collaboration and advance trail needs. At the start of the meeting, Chief Christiansen marked Gary Werner’s retirement by presenting him with a commemorative Chief’s office door knocker. 

Near the conclusion of the event, Barney Mann, PNTS Board President, shared a special recorded message for the Chief from a woman named Sharon Francis, who witnessed the National Trails System Act being signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Oct. 2, 1968. Chief Christiansen wrote about this moment on her blog.

USFS Chief Vicki Christiansen during a Trail Partner Meeting. Photo by Kathy DeCoster

The Hike the Hill advocates also had an important meeting with National Park Service Acting Director David Vela, who talked with the group about the future of the agency and how the National Trails System can play a role, and invited input from attendees on work they are doing along national trails throughout the country.

NPS Acting Director David Vela, seated, listens to RG Absher, Overmountain Victory Trail Association, during a partner meeting. Photo by Samantha Haas

Outside the Cannon House Office Building are Karen Crossley, PNTS Interim Executive Director; Gary Werner, PNTS Retired Executive Director; Don Owen, PNTS Consultant. Photo submitted by Don Owen.

During our meetings with agency leaders and on Capitol Hill, we discussed the importance of increasing Federal funding for the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Forest Service trails programs with specific line items in their budgets, which would help leverage our ability to care for, connect, and protect our NTS.

In 2019 alone, for every Federal dollar provided the return on investment equaled 1.5:1—thanks to volunteer stewardship of the trails. In total, over 22,000 volunteers contributed nearly one million hours of service within the NTS, which equates to a value of over $25 million. Additionally, private contributions from the national trails organizations for the NTS totaled over $14 million. 

As incredible as these contributions are, they are not enough to fully develop and sustain our trails.

Full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and greater funding for the agencies’ trail programs by Congress will help to provide means to close missing links, protect high-priority recreational and historic areas, and fund additional maintenance and necessary resources to already existing trails. Click here for LWCF and Congressional Updates.

Support the trails

Now, more than ever, it’s important for Congress to hear our voice. You too can contact Congress and let them know what issues matter most to you. Collectively, our voices will help to ensure the use and protection of these trails for many generations to come.

There is much work yet to be done to make the national trails fully usable and beneficial to all Americans, and you can help us complete and sustain the National Trails System! Your contribution helps us to protect land and resources along the national scenic and historic trail routes, educate children and young people about the trails, and support the work of citizen stewards who build and maintain these trails.

Thank you

American Hiking Society staff and the 2020 class of NextGen Trail Leaders. From left: Tyler Ray (director of policy and advocacy), David Taft, Kate Van Waes (executive director), Atieno Ouma, Lauren Wong, Lila Leatherman, Janelle Paciencia. Photo by Samantha Haas.

We’d like to thank our Federal agency partners at the Federal Highway Administration, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service who administer and manage our national trails for their continued support of the NTS as well as the many members of Congress who support our nation’s trails; and the following organizations for joining us at this year’s very successful Hike the Hill event:

  • Ala Kahakai Trail Association
  • American Conservation Experience
  • American Endurance Ride Conference
  • American Hiking Society
  • American Motorcyclist Association
  • American Trails
  • Anza Trail Foundation
  • Appalachian Mountain Club
  • Appalachian Trail Conservancy
  • Applied Trails Research
  • Arizona Trail Association
  • Back Country Horsemen of America
  • Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation
  • Connecticut Forest & Park Association
  • Hike the Hill attendees collect resources during before their congressional and agency meetings. Photo by Samantha Haas.

    Continental Divide Trail Coalition

  • Cycle Forward
  • East Bay Regional Park District
  • El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail Association
  • Florida Trail Association
  • Ice Age Trail Alliance
  • Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance
  • Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation
  • Lewis and Clark Trust, Inc.
  • National Pony Express Association
  • National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance
  • National Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association
  • North Country Trail Association
  • Old Spanish Trail Association
  • Oregon-California Trails Association
  • Overmountain Victory Trail Association
  • Pacific Crest Trail Association
  • Pacific Northwest Trail Association
  • Partnership for the National Trails System
  • Pennsylvania State University
  • Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
  • Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
  • Santa Fe Trail Association
  • Trail of Tears Association
  • Trailhead Consultants
  • Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado
  • Washington Trails Association