Tips for Trail Advocates

I was the keynote speaker earlier this month at Forever Green Council’s Pierce County Trails Conference.  Around sixty trail supporters turned out for this event to network, learn from each other, and celebrate trails.
Before I assumed my current mantle of Outreach and Communications Manager for the Bicycle Alliance, I worked with trail advocates around our state and helped organize support for a variety of trail projects. I drew from that experience to prepare my presentation and assembled some tips to share with conference attendees.  I think they’re worth sharing with you as well.
You’re in it for the long haul.
It can take years to build a trail.  The rail corridor that is today the Burke Gilman Trail in Seattle, was abandoned as a railroad in 1971.  The first segment of trail was not dedicated for public use until 1978.  Although additional segments have continued to be built, forty years after abandonment the trail still has a missing link.  You can read a more detailed history of the Burke Gilman Trail here.
It takes a coalition to build a trail.
Behind every successful trail is a determined group of citizens who made it happen.  The coalition often begins with a few folks who envision the trail and they get others to buy into their vision.  Successful coalitions build a broad-based constituency that includes individuals, trail user groups, business organizations, government agencies, community groups, and other influential partner organizations.  The Friends of Centennial Trail (Spokane), Yakima Greenway Foundation, and Peninsula Trails Coalition are a few examples from Washington State.
Make your vision tangible to others.
Do you hope to convert an old railroad bed, a river corridor, or a greenbelt into a trail?  Invite people to walk it with you so they can visualize what the trail could be.  Touching it, seeing it and experiencing it can help make the trail real for others.
Plan and prioritize your work.
Develop a plan for your trail and get it formally adopted.  Having your trail plan approved by  your City Council, or incorporated into local and regional plans gives it credibility and makes it eligible for certain types of funding.  Trails are frequently built in phases, so it’s important to prioritize your work.  Pick “low hanging fruit” and aim for impact.
Celebrate the milestones.
Since it can take many years to complete a trail, it’s important to celebrate the milestones along the way.  Hold a groundbreaking ceremony when you’re ready to build your first phase of trail or invite the community to a celebratory ribbon-cutting when you open a new segment of trail.
Cultivate the next generation.
Life throws us curve balls.  You and your fellow trail advocates may not always have the time to serve with the coalition.  It’s really important to recruit and mentor new advocates if you want your coalition’s work to continue.
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