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America’s Trails

Former Rails-to-Trails President Keith Laughlin Named 2019 Rail-Trail Champion

By: Amy Kapp
December 2, 2019

Keith Laughlin riding Caracara Trails | Photo courtesy RTC
Keith Laughlin riding Caracara Trails | Photo courtesy RTC

When Keith Laughlin became the second president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) in 2001, he did not envision he’d help usher in a golden age for trails. He was just excited for the next chapter of his career, a duration of “five to seven years,” he told the board, in which he hoped his 22 years of experience as a senior staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives and associate director for the White House Council on Environmental Quality would help continue to grow the maturing nonprofit, founded in 1986.

Keith Laughlin | Photo courtesy RTC
Keith Laughlin | Photo courtesy RTC

But good things come from those who wait. And Laughlin—who retired in February 2019 after 18 years at the helm and has been named RTC’s 2019 Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champion—looks back now with wonder at his time with RTC and the mass evolution of a movement: from an effort to weave trails into the American landscape, to a nationwide strategy to create thriving trail networks in pursuit of healthy, connected communities.

Building a Foundation

Tree planting along Metropolitan Branch Trail | Photo courtesy RTC
Tree planting along Metropolitan Branch Trail | Photo courtesy RTC

“Build healthier places for healthier people.” Formally integrated into RTC’s mission statement in 2004, it was an idea Laughlin would percolate upon his arrival, having been heavily influenced by his work in smart growth and sustainability. While Laughlin says his first few years were really about organizational growth—“I wasn’t trying to be visionary,” he affirmed—he knew trails could offer powerful solutions to challenges related to transportation, economic development and health.

To that end, Laughlin set his focus on: 1) expanding the movement to increase trail use and support for trails; and 2) protect and grow trail funding, with a focus on the Transportation Enhancements program (TE), aka Transportation Alternatives, the largest source of federal trail funding since 1991.

In 2003, the focus on federal funding would prove critical when TE came under attack in the U.S. House of Representatives—and in a watershed moment for trails, RTC mobilized with Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI) and the late Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) to secure House votes against its elimination, resulting in a dramatic 327 to 90 victory. “It was a key milestone for the movement that paved the way for us to play offense … [and] generate billions of dollars for trail development,” said Laughlin.

A few years later, Laughlin helped pave the way for another game-changing initiative: RTC’s national mapping program, which now documents more than 36,000 miles of rail-trails and multiuse trails accessed by more than 7 million people each year through “The mapping program had a huge impact,” said Laughlin. “It made it possible for millions of people to find and use trails … and it showed us how much the movement had grown, setting the stage for our focus on trail network development.”

Read an extended history of the movement from the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Rails to Trails magazine.

Connecting a Trail Nation

Keith Laughlin speaking at the 2018 TrailNation Summit | Photo courtesy RTC
Keith Laughlin speaking at the 2018 TrailNation Summit | Photo courtesy RTC

By the 2010s, national rail-trail mileage had nearly doubled (reaching 24,000+ miles as of 2019). Laughlin posed a thesis that by connecting completed trails into “whole networks,” you could create benefits much greater than the sum of their parts—related to health, economic development and tourism, mobility and conservation.

By 2017, through its national TrailNation™ portfolio, RTC had signed on to help lead the development of eight trail network projects serving millions of Americans. In January 2019, Laughlin led the launch of the country’s most ambitious trail project ever—the 3,700-mile Great American Rail-Trail connecting Washington, D.C., and Washington State, which—with origins from RTC’s early days—demonstrates the incredible growth of the movement over the past decades.

With his designation as the 2019 Rail-Trail Champion, Laughlin is placed in a list that includes some of the most esteemed trail supporters in the country. But he is modest about the award, preferring to credit his colleagues and the passionate trail advocates he’s met along the way.

“I’ve seen quite a few people who have received this award who were really in the trenches getting trails built—at a time when they were up against tremendous odds,” said Laughlin. “From the national level, they sort of looked up to us, but I more looked up to them. I’m honored to be in their company.”

Since 2011, the Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions Award has honored more than 35 individuals around the nation who have made significant contributions to the rail-trail movement through their hard work, volunteerism or support—in short, people who have gone above and beyond in the name of trails.

Amy Kapp | Photo courtesy Amy Kapp
Amy Kapp

Amy Kapp serves as Editorial Director and Editor-in-Chief of Rails to Trails magazine. Kapp frequently writes about the impact of, and vast historical and cultural connections made by, America's rail-trails, parks and public lands.

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