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  Keith Laughlin at Flat Branch Park in Columbia, Mo. © Jennifer Kaleba/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
RTC President Keith Laughlin at Flat Branch
Park in Columbia, Mo.

Preserving the Will to Think Big

We left Deadwood at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning this past June. I had flown up to South Dakota the day before for a three-day ride with several friends and long-time trail supporters. And as we rode the George S. Mickelson Trail through the Black Hills, a conversation of the previous day played over and over in my mind. While gazing at the wonder of Mount Rushmore, a friend had said, "We don't build things like that anymore."

At the time, I had quickly nodded in agreement. But I contemplated this thought further as we rode along the Mickelson Trail. It's a magnificent 110-mile rail-trail that retraces a Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad corridor first laid in 1890—and built in only 10 months. So by the time we rolled into Edgemont at noon on Thursday, I had concluded that we were, in fact, building something big with rail-trails. We're just doing it quietly and on the cheap.

When Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) opened its doors in 1986, there were about 450 miles of rail-trail in the country. Today—as we celebrate our 25th anniversary year—supporters across America have built 20,000 miles of rail-trail, used by tens of millions of Americans every year. And we have accomplished this task with an investment of less than two cents of every federal surface transportation dollar.

That kind of trail mileage on the ground has only inspired us to dream bigger, and we are vigorously pursuing an ambitious goal: By 2020, we want 90 percent of Americans to live within three miles of a trail system.

But our 2020 vision is currently endangered in Congress.

There are many on Capitol Hill who claim that America is "broke" and that we can't afford to make investments in our future—that the budget can't support even those two cents of every surface transportation dollar for trails, walking and biking. As a result, the programs that have produced the accomplishments of the past 25 years are in grave danger.

I assure you that RTC is not idly standing by as short-sighted thinking threatens to strip away so many years of progress—and so many future years of growth. It is imperative that we prevail, and that as Americans we don't lose the national will to do big things. Because like the builders of Mount Rushmore, we are creating a legacy that will inspire Americans for generations to come.

Happy Trails!

Keith Laughlin

Fall 2011

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
The Duke Ellington Building
2121 Ward Ct., NW
5th Floor
Washington, DC 20037