Rails-to-Trails' President Ryan Chao on Connecting America by Trail

Posted 07/15/19 by Ryan Chao in Building Trails, America's Trails

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy President Ryan Chao | Photo by Anthony Le, courtesy RTC
This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Rails to Trails magazine. It has been posted here in an edited format.


Thank you for welcoming me into your community. I’m delighted to join Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) as its third president and to partner with you in advancing our vital mission. It’s a profound honor to follow Keith Laughlin, whose dedicated leadership for 18 years helped support the creation of so many trails we enjoy today. It’s been just a few months for me in the role, but I can honestly say it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a new job!

And while this joyous work is filled with personal rewards, I joined RTC because I know how well trails can connect each of us to the things we value most: our families, our friends and neighbors, our communities and our cultural heritage. The value of trails is demonstrated every day in how they serve as pathways to opportunity. I look forward to discovering what my experiences in community reinvestment and social impact can bring to the table as RTC continues to prove just how indispensable trails are to America’s health and civic infrastructure.

Photo courtesy Robert Le - CC by 2.0
Trails are the perfect multigenerational gathering places. |Photo courtesy 2.0

Trails hold deep personal meaning for me. My father is Chinese; my mother is of Swedish descent. I’ve always valued the cultural richness of being of mixed heritage, but I regretted not learning Chinese and the communication barriers it presented with my grandparents. Trails provided a bridge. Some of my fondest childhood memories are walking with my grandparents on the trails near their home in Colorado, where generational and cultural barriers disappeared, and we could share the universal bonds of nature, activity and togetherness. And while I treasure these memories, I know they are by no means unique to my experience, as I’m sure each of you have fond memories of connecting in powerful and personal ways on the trail.

Undeniably, trails strengthen our relationships to each other and our past—and perhaps none has more potential to do so than the Great American Rail-Trail. RTC’s most ambitious project ever, this cross-country vision, from Washington, D.C., to Washington State, will unite us all while highlighting America’s diverse communities, stunning geography and rich cultural treasures. Launching the Great American Rail-Trail is both the culmination of decades of movement building and the start of a thrilling new adventure.

Related: From Dream to National Treasure: The Great American Rail-Trail

David dreamt it: The trail was first conceived in the late 1980s by RTC co-founder David Burwell, who helped propel some of the first rail-trails forward and dreamed of one that would span from coast to coast. For decades, this idea has been an underpinning of the organization’s strategy to create a nationwide network of trails.

Keith made it possible: Keith helped scale the rail-trail concept and led RTC in advocating for legislation that’s contributed to the more than 34,000 miles of multiuse trails that are now on the ground in American communities. With existing trails hosting more than 52 percent of the potential route of the Great American Rail-Trail, we are confident that a completed route is achievable over the next few decades.

And now, we have the opportunity before us: I hope you’ll join me in embracing the challenge of taking the Great American Rail-Trail forward and making it a reality together. See you on the trail!

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