Pathways to the Future: Trail and river communities converge in Pacific Northwest to mark 50 years

by Samantha Haas, Communications Coordinator, Partnership for the National Trails System

An educational field trip along the Oregon National Historic Trail featured a stop at Multnomah Falls. Photo Credit: Gustavo Vasquez.

After over a year of planning and much anticipation, the Partnership for the National Trails System (PNTS) and River Management Society hosted co-located events in Vancouver, WA from October 22-25, 2018 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System and Wild & Scenic Rivers Acts. The side-by-side events, featuring several joint sessions and mobile workshops, brought together private and public organizations and Federal agencies dedicated to the preservation of the nation’s wild, scenic, and historic places.

The 16th National Trails System Conference and Training drew more than 220 people to the Pacific Northwest, where several of our national scenic, historic, recreation, rail, and water trails converge. While the year-long #findyourtrail campaign and hundreds of partner events around the country encouraged people to enjoy the many benefits national trails provide, we’re reminded that they are still works in progress requiring further development, protection, and support. “There’s a place for every kind of American in the National Trails System,” said Gary Werner, PNTS Executive Director, “But we have a long way to go to make that real.”

Several of the workshops, keynote speakers, and panel discussions addressed the fundamental challenges of the National Trails System and started to identify the opportunities that will be needed for the National Trails System to succeed to its full potential in the next 50 years. Under the umbrella of the “Pathways to the Future” theme were five session tracks: trail land management and resource conservation, engaging new audiences, strengthening your organization, creating strong trails on the ground, and innovation and technology.  Off-site mobile workshops included visits to the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, Oregon National Historic Trail, Columbia River, Mount St. Helens, and various State parks and national wildlife refuges.


Next 100 Coalition members Carolyn Finney, Ph.D., Kevin Bryan, and Teresa Martinez participate in a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion panel. Photo Credit: Samantha Haas.

Opening keynote speaker Carolyn Finney, Ph.D., author of “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors,” aims to develop greater cultural competency within environmental organizations and institutions. Finney shared her family’s complicated history with the outdoors, that resiliency—not fear—defines us, and how “you can’t bring diversity to your table and not expect to change.”

The conversation continued on the topic of “Increasing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” with fellow Next 100 Coalition panelists Teresa Martinez, Executive Director of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, and Kevin Bryan, Senior Policy Director with the Keystone Policy Center. The trio answered questions from the full room and stressed the importance of creating emerging spaces in order to bring this intersection of marginalized voices together. “Keep showing up,” Finney said, “If it feels uncomfortable, you’re doing something different.”

The National Park Foundation (NPF) previewed its “Love Your Park” (LYP) campaign, an extension of the Find Your Park initiative meant to encourage more Americans to become stewards of their national parks. By uniting diverse partners, the goal is to accomplish more through collaboration, from contributing additional volunteer time, service corps projects, and financial support. Marya Skotte, NPF Community Partnerships Coordinator, was joined on stage by nonprofit pilot partners Joanne VanCoevern, Manager of the Santa Fe Trail Association, and Andrea Ketchmark and Valerie Bader, Executive Director and Director of Development of the North Country Trail Association (NCTA). “At first look (LYP) was a funding source, but it truly is a network we could learn from,” Ketchmark said. Bader described how LYP helped NCTA chapters and volunteers with the soft and hard skills necessary for their crew leader training program, chainsaw training in the event of a natural disaster, and updating the trail’s handbook for trail design, construction, and maintenance. Skotte said LYP will strengthen the parks and trails community by collaborating and sharing their progress and challenges through calls and webinars. Once the program is launched in 2019, NPF will offer mini-grants so partners can, for example, increase capacity to manage volunteers or launch new programs.

Nicole Browning, Senior Program Manager of REI, said the big question is how do we cultivate the next generation of trail stewards on the journey toward gender equity. In REI’s view, that’s leveling the playing field and increasing access to the outdoors through its holistic For All and Force of Nature efforts by changing the narrative, creating community through events and experiences, and closing the gear gap. For example, the Ice Age and Arizona national scenic trails have both been recipients of these Force of Nature grants, providing more opportunities for girls and women through their Trailtessa Retreats and Gear Girls program, respectively. “It’s important to think intentionally about equity,” Browning said.  

The closing speaker was “Fire Season” and “A Song for the River” author Philip Connors, who said he was “expecting solitude and found solidarity” as a fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Connors read portions of his work, evoking emotions of his respect for thru-hikers he met on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and his grief surrounding the tragic loss of young advocates for the Gila River. Moved to sing a verse of “Down to the River to Pray,” Connors was quietly joined by some members of the rivers and trails audience. He said his experiences “rearranged the landscapes of my life in ways I’d never seen.”


A record of 33 young adults received scholarships to attend the training conference as Trail Apprentices. Kaleo Paik, a member of the Ala Kahakai Trail Association, sang and distributed a kukui nut lei necklace to each of the Trail Apprentices as a “makana,” or gift. One of the Trail Apprentices who is a park ranger at Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park also exhibited this notion of makana by sharing Hawaiian proverbs with attendees later in the conference. “One of the best schools is the environment, and we are the parents of the land,” Maianna Taylor said, sharing the word “kuleana,” which means responsibility.

Trail Apprentices had the opportunity to talk to U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen prior to her address at the opening reception, and the USFS also offered focus sessions on the development of the agency’s 10-Year Trail Challenge.

Trail Apprentices heard directly from several nonprofit, corporate, and Federal representatives about career development during a leadership panel. They included Finney, Bryan, Martinez, Suzanne Dixon (President and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy), Rob Coughlin (Vice President – Sales and Product Development of Granite Gear), Taldi Waters (Government and Community Affairs Manager of REI), Jeff Reinbold (Assistant Director for Partnerships and Civic Engagement with the National Park Service), Susan Spear (Director of Wilderness and Wild & Scenic Rivers with the U.S. Forest Service), and Deb Salt (National Scenic and Historic Trails Program Lead with the Bureau of Land Management).

Ten of the Trail Apprentices were also selected to present “Trail Talks” on topics ranging from connecting trails to communities, using technology and storytelling for community engagement on public lands and trails, building an inclusive environment outdoors, and examining trail management. This phenomenal group continues to keep in touch and share job opportunities through a Facebook group hosted by the Partnership.

Right: Trail Apprentices meet with U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen. Photo Credit: Meredith Meeks.


The Partnership for the National Trails System also presented three awards to individuals who have demonstrated lifetime dedication or significant contributions to the development, promotion, and protection of trails within the National Trails System.

PNTS Executive Director Gary Werner awards Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Director, Karen Lutz, with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo Credit: Samantha Haas.

Helen Scully was the recipient of the Extraordinary Trail Partner Award in recognition of her 18 years of service as the National Recreation Trails Coordinator with the National Park Service and her quiet, persistent, and cheerful support of the National Trails System through projects such as guiding the development of Trail Data Standards, faithfully proofreading Pathways Across America, and providing administrative support for the Federal Interagency Council on Trails.

Bart Smith received the Lifetime Achievement Award – Volunteer in recognition of his inspiring achievement over 25 years in hiking the 30 national scenic and historic trails to capture the unique character of each trail through thousands of photographs and for sharing them in six books and photo exhibits so that everyone can experience the beauty of and be inspired by the trails.

Karen Lutz received the Lifetime Achievement Award – Staff in recognition of her 30 years of dedicated service as a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy staff, successfully solving some of the most challenging obstacles to providing a safe, high quality experience along the entire AT while cheerfully inspiring those with whom she has worked, as well as her support of the Partnership, the National Trails System, and its trail organizations.

By the Numbers

650,000: Views on Trails50 Facebook page  

150,000: Estimated attendance of all events

140,000: Views on website  

129,000: Times #findyourway hashtag used

52,000: Times #findyourtrail hashtag used

33,000: 50th anniversary articles written

24,267: Pieces of Trails50 merchandise sold

5,220: Followers on Trails50 social media

1,558: Sign ups for Trails50 e-news

300: Photo contest submissions received

242: Events added to Trails50 map

220: October conference registrants

70: Stories shared on Trails50 blog

9: Nonprofit partners and Federal agencies collaborated on this 50th anniversary effort

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.