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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.

What Kind of Legacy?

In small towns and cities across the country, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) mission has never been more popular. People love their trails, and they want more of them. And why wouldn't they? For a relatively modest investment, we have helped build more than 20,000 miles of rail-trail that are used by tens of millions of Americans every year.

People at the local level understand these trails bring tangible benefits to their communities. Their quality of life improves, their property values go up, their green space is protected and they have access to safe places to lead active lives. All of this is accomplished on the cheap, requiring less than two cents of every federal surface transportation dollar. For people at the community level, these are the most popular programs at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

But as I write this, both houses of the U.S. Congress are weighing legislation that threatens to wipe out the programs that have fueled our progress during the past 20 years. Not a penny of these deep cuts would reduce the deficit; rather, trail investment would be eliminated and then added—like drops in a bucket—to the billions we already spend on highways. That's just nonsense to me.

My personal perspective on this situation has deepened in recent days. I just became a grandfather for the first time. My brand-new granddaughter lives one block from the Southwest Path in Madison, Wis. She will enjoy her first experience on a rail-trail this spring while being pushed in a stroller. She will learn to ride a bike on this trail a few springs after that.

My granddaughter's trail was built using the funding that is now under attack. Without that federal support, it likely wouldn't exist. That's caused me to think long and hard about the legacy we will leave our children and grandchildren. Will there be safe places for them to walk and bike? Or will our legacy be limited to providing our children an additional on-ramp to the interstate?

In the weeks and months ahead, we will be fighting mightily to ensure the federal government continues to support local efforts to build a nationwide system of trails. But we will need your help and may call on you to reach out to your elected representatives. Help them understand what we all know so clearly—that trails aren't afterthoughts, to be funded only with budget crumbs. They're essential features of healthy and active communities, and we'll do everything in our power to keep the programs alive that fund trail development across the country.

Happy Trails!

Keith Laughlin

Spring/Summer 2012

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