By Guest Columnist BRYAN K. ALEXANDER, former manager of Georgia’s Recreational Trails Program

Seeing this state through the lens of the Recreational Trails Program, as I did for eight years, showed me that Georgia is getting prettier and prettier.

Moultrie’s citizens keep loving their Tom White Linear Park with open affection and monetary contributions.

Silver Comet Trail devotees have inspired an economic impact study that has gone viral, and they are supporting movements to expand the Trail towards Rome.

Bryan Alexander
Bryan Alexander

The Atlanta BeltLine—of course, that is a project that is spreading trail fever, not only for its taming of the city’s landscape but for bringing more people together, beautiful face to beautiful face.

And yet, Georgia clearly has a lot more to do to improve its trail network. The PATH Foundation, whose projects are mostly privately funded, is in great demand. The U.S. Forest Service frequently has to scramble just to maintain its existing network of hiking, horseback, and off-road-vehicle trails. People want trails near their homes; they want them safe and open; and they want them long enough for making all-day excursions.

Could trails be suffering from an identity crisis because government agencies don’t quite know how to categorize them?

Nationwide, trails indeed face a danger of losing federal funds if certain political elements succeed in their current Congressional efforts to remove trails from being eligible to receive transportation funding.

To the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which operates the federally-funded Recreational Trails Program, trails are said to fit in with the agency’s mission to conserve natural beauty and resources. Trails are a recreation program.

Dauset Trails: Dauset Trails Nature Center in Jackson, Ga.
Dauset Trails: Dauset Trails Nature Center in Jackson, Ga. (Photos by Bryan Alexander)

To transportation agencies, trails are eligible for funds from the Transportation Alternatives Program, if and when they connect at least two identifiable economic destinations with each other.

To the Georgia General Assembly, trails seem not to register in the legislative worldview. The Recreational Trails Program operates with about $1.5 million in federal funds per year. DNR contributes only enough funding to the Trails Program to meet the match required to pay the trail administrator’s salary and expenses. State funds are generally not being used for trails.

Yet the Recreational Trails Program, with its relatively small pot of funds, cannot help much with bigger projects. DNR has also been unable to make a thorough study of the existing statewide inventory of trails, much less develop a long-range plan to unify their development.

When the Atlanta BeltLine got moving, its leaders needed massive private support even though it is primarily a public facility.

Panola Mountain Trail at Panola Mountain State Park in southeast metro Atlanta
Panola Mountain Trail at Panola Mountain State Park in southeast metro Atlanta

To the BeltLine’s fundraisers, the Recreational Trails Program’s pittance, and its accompanying red tape, was not worth the effort.

In this environment, trail advocates must unify for the sake of drawing the disciplines together who understand the complexities of trails. Planning is needed, both on a statewide scale and within the state’s regions. The Silver Comet economic impact study demonstrates that the state’s economic development leadership should play a key role in trail development. Fundraising efforts are needed to demonstrate the leadership that the General Assembly so far has not exercised.

Trails and our experience with them run deep in our blood. Getting on a trail brings us in contact with unconscious history: Our ancestors walking across Pennsylvania and Ohio to settle at their relatives’ homestead in Indiana. Our ancestors escaping from bondage or war through the woods along the river bank. Our ancestors driving cattle to market.

Four-wheeling at Beasley Knob National Forest near Blairsville, Ga.
Four-wheeling at Beasley Knob National Forest near Blairsville, Ga.

And trails tap into our own personal histories: In childhood, passing in summer through a crop-field landscape on the way to our aunt’s house. Or just us, husband and wife in a more recent quiet time when the springtime aromas bit into us without our noticing.

Trails cross hidden internal thresholds, just as clearly as they cross jurisdictions, connect the state’s historic sites, and carry backpackers across the ridgelines in the southern Appalachians.

The Georgia trail advocates who understand this need for trails must begin to work together more, and not let the state’s old divisions stop them.

By now it is well understood that a trail is a relatively inexpensive way to accomplish clean economic impact, improve public health, reduce hydrocarbon emissions, and lower environmental impact. What drives us to jump onto trails is that Georgia is so rich in history and natural beauty.

If given the chance, we will ride, run or walk into it.

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