Building a Long Distance National Trail: Victory and Struggle on the Anza Trail
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The national trail system is a network of scenic, historic, and recreation trails that crisscross the United States. These trails provide recreational, educational, and economic benefits to the American people. The national trail system continues to expand in size and complexity, yet little research explores how these trails are built. The purpose of this paper is to inform the development of new national trails through an examination of the Anza Trail—a long distance national trail in the early stages of development. This paper provides a systematic look at the challenges and keys to success in recreational trail building at a multi-state scale. 18 interviews were conducted in three states with a variety of public and private representatives who collectively held over 190 years of experience in long distance trail building. The paper describes how paid practitioners and volunteers are responding to challenges involving the scale of the effort, its limited popularity, and scarce resources. The paper concludes with recommendations for government agencies and nonprofits involved with national trails. First, a handful of committed volunteers can have a powerful influence on a trail building effort, even at a multi-state scale. But, federal agencies should make proactive investments in nonprofit “friends groups” from the outset to ensure progress is sustainable. Second, federal trail managers can most effectively support trail building efforts when they possess collaborative leadership skills and geographically position themselves to serve the largest possible span of trail supporters. Third, “momentum” is an important concept in these volunteer-driven efforts. Long periods of inaction, especially during the planning phase, can cause enthusiasm and support to dissolve. Finally, decisions about how to begin the implementation phase have far reaching consequences. One effective trail building strategy is to follow the path of least resistance by making maximum use of the “assets” already on the ground.