Cross-country skiing with Peggy Pings, one of West Virginia's rail-trail leaders.
Starting in February 2008, we introduced a monthly Web profile called "Trail Voices" to highlight the work of rail-trail supporters around the country. Our interview subjects are anyone from high-level urban planners to local volunteers, and no contribution to the trails, hiking and bicycling movement is too big or too small—dedication comes in all sizes. We could never tell all the personal stories that make rail-trails a success, but we can share a few of the voices behind the movement.
Our first profile featured Peter Lagerwey, senior transportation planner for the Seattle Department of Transportation Bicycle & Pedestrian Program. For March we tracked down Peggy Pings, outdoor recreation planner for the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program (RTCA) with the National Park Service.
Name: Peggy Pings
Involvement: Peggy's work in natural resource conservation and trail development started when she began volunteering and organizing for grassroots organizations in West Virginia in the 1980s. When RTCA created an Allegheny region field office in 1995, Peggy was a natural fit. Through RTCA, she helps builds community-based support for trail development and the protection of rivers and open space. Known for her energetic and all-inclusive style of organizing public participation, she is dedicated to developing sustainable local support for projects. Her work is based in West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.
On the trail: Peggy was instrumental in the creation of the Mon River Rail-Trail system, a 51-mile network that was designated a National Recreation Trail in 2006. She is continually involved in trail development projects through her work with RTCA.
Off the trail: She loves to travel, camp, kayak, swim, bicycle, attend music and dance festivals, and hang out on the farm with family and friends.
What first sparked your interest in the outdoors, and how did you initially become involved in rail-trail development?
Growing up in Wisconsin, most families used their two weeks vacation to go camping. So, every summer we went camping in the Wisconsin state parks. And as a kid we rode our bicycles or walked everywhere because everything was so pedestrian-oriented. My family was always really supportive of that kind of lifestyle. As a young adult, I used to hop freight trains across the U.S. as a migrant farm worker, and I loved the scenery.
Later, I moved to West Virginia to pursue a degree in landscape architecture and became involved in a foundation that works to protect and preserve Cooper's Rock State Forest. At the same time, I joined the North Bend Rails to Trails Foundation board. After two years, in 1991, I learned about a railroad corridor abandonment in Morgantown, W.Va., along the Monongahela River. I had always been interested in the riverfront area and its potential to be transformed. I went to the Riverfront Task Force meeting to ask for their support in turning the corridor into a rail-trail, and with the help of a few other interested community members, began working on a plan that resulted in the development of the 51-mile Mon River Rail-Trail system. After grad school, I was working with the National Park Service on a greenway concept plan, and shortly thereafter, they hired me to open an Allegheny regional office for the Rivers and Trails Program in 1995. So, I started getting paid to do what I was doing as a volunteer.
What are some of the issues unique to working in the Appalachian region?
There's not a lot of flat land. So there's a premium on trails that exist for all ages and abilities. You have to learn how to share trails for many uses. Also, there's a lot of need in the Appalachian region. I've found that if you have a good idea for a project and are willing to take a strong lead, you can really start something. People will spread the waters and open channels for you, and jump onboard.
What has been one of the most dramatic changes you've seen in a community as a result of trail development?
The Mon River Rail-Trail system's affect in changing Morgantown is the most dramatic I've seen. The trail runs along the Monongahela River and Deckers Creek, and the waterfront was a dilapidated area with vacant warehouses. The rail-trail changed it all and really spurred riverfront development. In 2005, I spent some time collecting economic impact data relative to the trail, and I found that for every dollar spent on the trail, $100 was being spent on development of adjacent private property, and property values increased tenfold. When I first started promoting the trail, I told people: "In 10 years, you're not going to recognize this place." And now, people who visit after being away for years are amazed at the positive change to their town.
At the same time, there's a fine line between too little and too much development. The lower income people ended up selling or moving away from the riverfront, and large hotel/conference centers went up, along with tall condos, apartment buildings and offices. The sad thing that easily happens without close watch is gentrification and loss of historic structures, as land values and rents rise drastically. It's a love-hate relationship that I'm experiencing.
You've had a lot of experience on both sides of the fence—as a volunteer and as a project manager for a federal agency. What are some of the differences?
When I was working on projects as a volunteer, I didn't know what "technical assistance" meant. It was hard for us to get help because we didn't know what we could ask for, or who to ask. When I started working for the Rivers and Trails Program, I realized how hard it is for volunteer groups to make contact with the federal, state and even local agencies that they need to work with to move a project forward. Now I have a deep understanding for the importance of technical assistance, and having help with making connections.
What advice would you give to those interested in being involved in a trail project?
Take initiative. Find out if there are existing groups, go to their meetings and learn more about their project. Assess your own interests, skills and abilities, and find out how you can be plugged in. Whatever you can do—taking pictures, calling people—offer it up. Don't wait for them to figure out how you can help. Just be open, respectful and friendly.
How do you engage stakeholders and people who might oppose a project?
A lot of times, the opposition is a stakeholder. The idea is to identify who they are, develop a database of contacts—even the ones who might oppose or question the project—and bring them in early on. Invite them to the meetings, involve them in the steering committee, and let them understand the project as you go. Ask all those involved to be respectful and listen. Be honest and have fun with it. Do recreational field trips, visit similar projects in other towns, get social a little bit so it's not just an adversarial meeting—develop friends through public participation.
When I'm assisting a community, I tend to play a strong role in convening the first meetings, and in offering project support by writing up and distributing meeting minutes so that there's a grounding on paper to formalize the project. I make phone calls, lots of phone calls, especially at the start-up of a project, mostly to explain the project, ask their advise, and invite them to participate. I think it's the phone calls that really help to engage. E-mails are great because people are really busy, but phone calls are usually more effective. I spend a little extra time in the beginning, but after the first year the community can begin to take it on themselves.
How do you see trail development changing in the coming years?
Everybody talks about how their hometown used to be—they miss that. But everything is going to keep changing. I think it used to be that people working on trail projects were mostly concerned with their own little corner of the world, but now they need to look at the bigger picture. In the next decade, there's going to be a lot more focus on linkages and building trail networks. There will be more of a focus on using GPS and GIS and creating interactive online tools for trip-planning and seeing where trails are. Also, I think you'll continue to see more of a focus on developing new partners in the health professions and the workplace. Getting more people out on the trail will help raise the awareness of our precious resources and increase environmentalism and stewardship.