Rails to Trails Conservancy is Connecting Communities

Since 1986, Rails to Trail Conservancy has worked to create, preserve and protect trails. The organization’s goal is to create a nationwide network of trails from old railways, that are no longer in use, to connect communities. The belief is, “ that communities are healthier and happier when trail networks are central to their design,”. As of today, there are 23,000 miles rail-trails on the ground and plans for more than 8,000 miles are ready to be built. This is through their three flagship initiatives,, TrailNation™ and the Great American Rail-Trail™.

Rail-trail bridge in Virginia

Rail-trail bridge in Virginia

RTC has ties back to September 25th, 1963 when naturalist and writer May T. Watts sent a letter on the power trails to the editor of the Chicago Tribune. Watts introduced the transformation of a disused Chicago rail line into a multi-use pathway and sparks the creation of the Illinois Prairie Path. Two years later in 1965 the Elroy Sparta Trail was opened in Wisconsin. These two trails provide the blueprint for thousand of rail-trails to follow across the country. In 1968, the National Trail Systems Act was passed and moves to create a network of trails, grouped into four categories, scenic, historic, recreation and connecting/side.

Dear Editor,

We are human beings. We are able to walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath. Right now there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one. The right-of-way of the Aurora electric road lies waiting. If we have courage and foresight, such as made possible the Long Trail in Vermont and the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, and the network of public footpaths in Britain, then we can create from this strip a proud resource.

Look ahead some years into the future. Imagine yourself going for a walk on an autumn day. Choose some part of the famed Illinois footpath. Where the highway crosses it, you enter over a stile. The path lies ahead, curving around a hawthorn tree, then proceeding under the shade of a forest of sugar maple trees, dipping into a hollow with ferns, then skirting a thicket of wild plum, to straighten out for a long stretch of prairie, tall grass prairie, with big blue stem and blazing star and silphium and goldenrod........

That is all in the future, the possible future. Right now the right-of-way lies waiting, and many hands are itching for it. Many bulldozers are drooling.
— May Theilgaard Watts, Chicago Tribune Sept. 25, 1963

Then in 1986, U.S. Founders Peter Harnik and David Burwell were credited with writing and acquiring funding for the proposal to create RTC. The proposal was supported by philanthropist Larry Rockefeller and the National Wildlife Federation. From there on out, RTC worked tirelessly petitioning and working to preserve and create rail-trails with the support of the government. Various conservancy policies and funding for the trails are passed because of the work RTC has done.

How can you support RTC?

The first way to support RTC and the trails is to sign the Great American Rail-Trail Pledge, find out more here. The second way to support is to donate money on the RTC website to fund building of trails and the organization. The most important ways to support the work is to get out on a trail near you and speak up about the importance of preserving these tracks for future trail use. Find a trail, here. And more ways to support Rails to Trails, here.

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