We can be trail builders again

“We are human beings. We are able to walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath.”

Conservationist and naturalist May T. Watts wrote those words in a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune in 1963, opening the door for volunteers to build the Illinois Prairie Path and launch the American rails-to-trails movement.

I worked in bicycle advocacy and multi-use trail development for 17 years before moving to Trails for Illinois, and the work those first Illinois trail builders accomplished boggles my mind: moms, dads, kids, accountants, teachers, etc. built the first 19 miles of the IPP in just six years. Six! If you’ve worked on trails, you must be as stunned as I am, trained as you’ve become to think of this kind of mileage in DECADES. And this was 20 years before the 1991 Clean Air Act began pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into trail development. The IPP volunteers did it with dimes, sweat, blisters and unstoppable determination.

Illinois trails of all types are in trouble. If you haven’t heard, perhaps because you are not from Earth, Illinois is flat broke. Our Department of Natural Resources has been hacked to the bone; damage from storms and day-to-day use on our signature trails like the Rock Island State Trail and I&M Canal State Trail, and the hiking trails in our beautiful parks, linger for years for want of appropriate operating funding.

Meanwhile much of the federal funding available to trails was cut nearly in half by MAP-21 in 2012, adding insult to injury. In Illinois, programs like Enhancements and now the Transportation Alternatives Program see requested dollars exceed available dollars by 10-1. The tiny-by-comparison RTP can’t even cover half of the projects requesting funds.

It kind of feels like we’ve planted our garden next to the puddle we mistook for a spring. Maybe we should dig some wells.

In 2014, Trails for Illinois is grabbing shovels. Literally, actually. I’ve had the great fortune of getting to know the Illinois Prairie Path, including some of the original volunteers like Paul Mooring, and Richard and Nancy Wilson, who are still active trail stewards. And I’ve gotten to dive into its archives. The Illinois Prairie Path was deeded over to DuPage County in the late 1980s, mostly closing the book on the amazing chapter of its grassroots development. But what I’ve discovered is a legacy so strong that it deserves to be brought out, reinvigorated, and put back to work.

Trails for Illinois is launching Illinois Trail Corps this summer as a pilot project at Lake Shelbyville, Illinois, about 190 miles south of Chicago. Our goal is to revive the legacy of the Illinois Prairie as an active trail building program by combining it with another great legacy, the Civilian Conservation Corps whose work in the 1930s at Illinois’ state parks are still the state’s premier recreation facilities. We’re building a program that will bring young adults serving in national conservation corps to Lake Shelbyville along with volunteers to build, repair and improve hiking and biking trails like the 11-mile Illini Trail. Our work in Shelbyville will help us test and refine a model that we can bring to trail projects anywhere in the state.

Trails are important to local economies, environmental stewardship, and quality of life in Illinois—a Triple Bottom Line. Illinois needs projects that meet the Triple Bottom Line more than ever. You can learn more about Illinois Trail Corps at http://www.trailsforillinois.org/ILtrailcorps.

Let’s build some trail.


Article by:

Steve Buchtel
Trails for Illinois
Member of AHS’ Alliance of Hiking Organizations

Featured image:

Courtesy of Courtesy North Central College