RTC President's Message: Connecting America Like Never Before

Posted 01/14/20 by Ryan Chao in America's Trails

Oak Leaf Trail in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, along the Route of the Badger trail network | Photo courtesy Front Room Photography
This article was originally included in the Winter 2019 issue of Rails to Trails magazine (out in late-January). It has been posted here in an edited format. Special thanks to RTC President Ryan Chao for this—the latest post in his new monthly series on the role of trails in connecting the nation, and creating healthy, thriving communities across America.

At Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), we try to share the diversity of our country’s vast trails and the people behind them. But if there’s one thing you’ll find consistent in nearly every story we share through our channels, it’s how trails connect us. In the most literal sense, they serve as a means to get from place to place, and figuratively, trails grant us deep and meaningful connections to each other and to nature.

As I conclude my first year at RTC, I’m grateful to have met and drawn inspiration from people all across America who are working to provide their fellow citizens with invaluable connections through trails.

Oak Leaf Trail in Milwaukee, Wisconsin | Photo courtesy Front Room Photography
Oak Leaf Trail in Milwaukee, Wisconsin | Photo courtesy Front Room Photography

In Milwaukee, at the center point of the Route of the Badger trail network—a developing 700-mile RTC TrailNation™ project in southeastern Wisconsin—the 125-miles-plus Oak Leaf Trail embodies the meaning of connectivity. The trail provides a special connection to Milwaukee’s natural treasures, including its winding path along Lake Michigan. It connects the neighborhoods that give Milwaukee its personality and its soul. And it provides deep personal connections for the hundreds of thousands of people who explore the trail each year. 

Oak Leaf Trail in Milwaukee, Wisconsin | Photo courtesy Front Room Photography
Oak Leaf Trail in Milwaukee, Wisconsin | Photo courtesy Front Room Photography

In Atlanta, the expansion of the Silver Comet Trail to connect with the Atlanta BeltLine—and the connections this expansive trail system will make across state and city lines, and between urban and rural communities—is inspiring. It’s a testament to the joy that trails bring and the enthusiasm that exists for their potential. This trail connection will unlock incredible opportunities for the estimated millions of people who use the trail each year, and the millions who have yet to experience it.

Atlanta BeltLine | Photo by Jim Brown, courtesy RTC
Atlanta BeltLine | Photo by Jim Brown, courtesy RTC

These trails, and what’s happening in all of RTC’s TrailNation projects and with the Great American Rail-Trail™, represent opportunities to connect the nation by trail in new and exciting ways. But in the midst of this momentum, trails and active transportation infrastructure face new and unexpected challenges. The last decade saw significant weather events that have become increasingly devastating and frequent. And the havoc these storms dealt to communities across the country also impacted their trails.


For some, it will be a long road to rebuild. But it’s also an opportunity to consider the role that trails play in protecting our climate: By getting people out of their cars and into nature, we create new bonds to the outdoors, we decrease carbon emissions, and we increase physical activity. Trails are but one part of a systemic solution to climate change, but the role they play is one for which all of us in the trails movement can be proud.

I might be wrapping up my first year at RTC—but we’re all embarking on a new decade. For the trails and active transportation movement, there is much optimism about what the future holds.

In every state and across more than 36,000 miles of multiuse trails, we see firsthand how trails are anchors in their communities—delivering health, climate and economic benefits. We see how trails connect people to each other and reconnect many with nature. We see how trails provide equitable opportunities for recreation and transportation. We see the power of connecting America by trail like never before.

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