Embracing Change

Posted 05/18/18 by Keith Laughlin in America's Trails

Keith on the Route of the Badger in Wisconsin | Photo by Ben Carter, courtesy RTC

The memory is as vivid as if it were yesterday.

It was in 2001, soon after I joined Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC). It was a warm summer day. I felt a soft breeze in my face as I cycled along America’s first rail-trail—the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin. Suddenly, a wave of pure joy washed over me. It brought back long-forgotten memories of the thrill of riding my bike as a kid.

I grinned as I silently asked myself a rhetorical question: “Do I really get paid to do this?”

Keith on the trail | Photo courtesy RTC
Keith on the trail | Photo courtesy RTC

In that moment of epiphany, I fully recognized the magic of the trail experience. As an environmental advocate, I had long understood the value of protecting natural places. But, in retrospect, it had been an abstract understanding.

In this singular moment in Wisconsin, I first understood how the work of RTC could bring that feeling of joy into people’s lives.

In that moment, I knew I had found my calling. I fully embraced the notion that RTC provided the opportunity to do work that was not only meaningful, but joyful. From that point, I have never seriously considered doing anything else. It’s been a wonderful ride.

But all good things must come to an end. I will be stepping down as RTC president in February 2019.


I look forward to seeing what comes next as RTC continues to aggressively pursue its mission of spreading joy by connecting America by trail.


As I reflect on my tenure and how our work has evolved since that day in 2001, I’m proud of RTC’s position at the forefront of the active transportation movement. We have grown significantly in the past two decades, seizing new opportunities to first build rail-trails and now to maximize those trails by connecting them with each other. Today, we have powerful initiatives underway designed to catalyze the development of trail networks nationwide.

Explore the difference—with all of your support—that we have made. Check out our 2017 Annual Report to learn more about RTC’s accomplishments.

For example, through TrailNation™, we are working in close partnership with local organizations to build model trail networks that are designed to be replicated and that prove what is possible when trail networks, walking and biking become central to our lives. Our advocacy agenda is squarely focused on elevating the importance of trails, walking and biking in communities nationwide, with the aim of significantly increasing investments in active transportation. TrailLink.com connects millions of people each year with trails all over the country.

We are exactly where an organization wants to be at a time of executive transition—building upon a solid programmatic and financial position, with a strong vision for the future of trails, walking and biking that we hope to shape.

Team RTC cleaning up a section of the Rock Creek Park Trails system with Rock Creek Conservancy in Washington, D.C. for the 2017 Make A Difference Day | Photo courtesy RTC
Team RTC cleaning up a section of the Rock Creek Park Trails system with Rock Creek Conservancy in Washington, D.C. for the 2017 Make A Difference Day | Photo courtesy RTC

When I was asked to join RTC as its president, the job offer came with a warning: “Before you say yes, you should know that the average tenure of someone replacing the founder of a nonprofit is 18 months.”

Next February, it will be 18 years since I ignored that warning and succeeded founding President David Burwell. I have never regretted it for a minute. It doesn’t feel like work when you get paid for doing something you love.

It has been my pleasure to lead RTC as it has grown and matured. When I came aboard in 2001, RTC was a highly spirited 15-year-old that got things done through sheer energy. Today, RTC is a highly professional 30-something that has remained on the cutting edge of the trails movement.

I look forward to seeing what comes next as RTC continues to aggressively pursue its mission of spreading joy by connecting America by trail.

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