Let’s prioritize growing our trail organizations to be able to fully realize our national trails

by Gary Werner, Executive Director, Partnership for the National Trails System

In the Spring Issue of Pathways Across America, I briefly described these fundamental challenges that we in the National Trails System community face to fully realize the potential and expectations of our national scenic and historic trails.


  • Transforming the national scenic and historic trails from a collection of premier trails into a national public lands system like the National Park System and the National Wildlife Refuge System or the National Wilderness System.
  • Completing the trails on the ground—closing the gaps in the scenic trails and preserving and interpreting all the “high potential sites and segments” along the historic trails.
  • Growing all of the national trail organizations to greatly enhance their capacity and resources and that of the Federal trail agencies to be able to fully develop and sustain the National Trails System.

The third challenge must be met in order for us to accomplish the second one, which I addressed in some detail in the Summer Issue of Pathways. This third challenge is about how to make our essential nonprofit organizations strong and robust enough to be able to complete and properly sustain our 30 national scenic and historic trails as the premier components of our public land heritage they are intended to be.

Liatris (blazing star) amongst gray-headed coneflowers and rosin weed in the 73-acre Holmes Preserve along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Dane County, WI. Photo Credit: Gary Werner

Over the past two decades, some of the trail organizations in the Partnership for the National Trails System have grown significantly in membership, professional staff capacity, and funding support. Meanwhile, a number of our organizations seem to be languishing with little change in capacity or resources. However, I have yet to hear from any trail organization leader, from our strongest organizations on to our less well supported ones, that the organization has enough resources—in people or funding—to properly sustain its national scenic or historic trail.  

With at least 4,000 miles of authorized national scenic trails yet to be built and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of “high potential sites and segments” of national historic trails yet to be fully protected, interpreted, and made available for public use, there is clearly much more work to be done in the National Trails System than we currently have resources to be able to do. Just to fully maintain the amount of trail already developed is straining current available resources.

To both properly maintain existing trail and to build the many gaps remaining in the 30 national scenic and historic trails will require several magnitudes more people and funding than we are currently able to muster as a community.

To mobilize this much greater amount of resources for our trails will require seeking and cultivating new sources of support. Just doing more of what we are successfully doing now will not provide enough resources. We must not abandon any of the sources of support we currently have. We must continue to cultivate them, but we must also vigorously seek support from nontraditional sources or from sources we may have only tangentially engaged.

We need to fully understand and appreciate the multidimensional qualities and values inherent in our national scenic and historic trails to be able to share that understanding with the larger American community. Since these trails are conceived and authorized fundamentally as community-based endeavors, they are inherently social in nature so that making and sustaining them depends on drawing on resources from throughout the community—resources contributed, not exacted. The social nature of our trail making means that we can provide a variety of services and benefits to the communities helping to sustain our trails. Our trails are inherently ways that our work and goals can converge with and complement the goals of many other social organizations in the communities along the way. However, to the extent that we do not fully appreciate and convey the many strands of connection and kinds of value our trails bring to the communities along them (and to America as a whole) we only draw resources—people and funding—to support them and our work from a very limited segment of America’s population.

We must find ways to tell our stories more accurately and completely; to become better at describing the range and variety of services and benefits we provide that converge or coincide with those of organizations and people of like values and goals to better attract more people and money to help us as we in turn help them.

A bur oak tree stands tall and strong at the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve in Cross Plains, WI. Photo Credit: Gary Werner

In recent years we have begun to recognize and explain the many physical connections our long-distance trails make with special places—parks, refuges, preserves—and communities across America. We have done much less recognizing and explaining of the many beneficial social connections these socially sustained trails can foster throughout the nation. Some of our trails have hosted “Wounded Warrior” hikes and some have developed and operate very creative and successful youth-oriented programs, such as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s “Trail to Every Classroom,” the “iTREC! (Iditarod Trail to Every Classroom),” the Ice Age Trail Alliance’s “Saunters,” and the Arizona Trail Association’s “Seeds of Stewardship.” All of these and the other similar programs along our trails should be expanded and like activities begun where they do not exist. But we should also engage a whole host of other community and social organizations with interests, missions, and values that mirror and complement ours, including, but not limited to:

  • Various diversity organizations, such as Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, and Native Tribes along all our trails;
  • Health promoting organizations;
  • Local historical societies and cultural heritage organizations;
  • Youth-oriented and youth support organizations;
  • Land trusts;
  • Wildlife Watcher and wildlife conservation organizations;
  • Ecological restoration and watershed protection organizations;
  • State, regional, and local tourism bureaus.

To foster alliances with and collaborate in mutually beneficial projects and programs with these other social organizations may require expanding how we portray our trails and our organizations. We may need to reimagine the mission and goals of our organizations and the vision for our national trails to be able to show the connections inherent in our trails to the goals and aspirations of these other civic organizations and how by working together we can better accomplish our mutual goals.

For example, we ought to follow the lead of the Ala Kahakai NHT organizations, Overmountain Victory Trail Association, Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance, and the Oregon-California, Santa Fe, and Pony Express trail associations and find places to fit all of our national historic trails into the recreational infrastructure of the communities, landscapes, and waterways they traverse. We ought to identify the places along all our scenic and historic trails, like the South Platte River in Nebraska and the Rio Grande in New Mexico, that are premier wildlife viewing areas and make common cause with the organizations working to preserve them. Similarly, each of our national trails is one, several, or many pieces of one or more large landscape conservation initiatives. We ought to work with the land trusts and communities engaged in those efforts to our mutual benefit. Our scenic trail organizations should increase their invitations to the long-distance hikers that use our trails to help us build and maintain them.

We should recruit sympathetic leaders from these and other complementary civic organizations to serve on our organizations’ boards of directors.

Perhaps the PNTS should be used as a way for its member organizations to work together to raise more private sector funding to support the work of the entire National Trails System community.

As we identified goals in 2008 for the “Decade for the National Trails” leading up to this 50th anniversary year, let us consider adopting goals to achieve in the next 10 years leading up to the 60th Anniversary of the National Trails System in 2028. Here are several to consider:

  • By 2028 twice as many volunteers as in 2018 will contribute at least 2 million hours annually to help sustain the 30 national scenic and historic trails;
  • By 2028 each national scenic and historic trail organization will have:
    • a well-paid professional staff supporting its work;
    • a diverse board of directors that reflects the full range of America’s races and the multidimensions of the social values of our trails;
    • at least 10,000 members and/or supporters.

We will explore in more detail this challenge to grow the capacity of our trail organizations through several workshops during the National Trail System 50th Anniversary Conference, October 22-25, 2018 in Vancouver, WA. To learn more and to register for the conference go to www.pnts.org.

Happy autumn enjoying our national trails!

Unless otherwise indicated, all material in Pathways Across America is public domain. All views expressed herein are perspectives of individuals working on behalf of the National Trails System and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of the Federal agencies.