Federal Program Needs Your Support for the Future
WTA volunteers donate thousands of hours each year, but it takes a lot of resources to get boots on the ground. The Recreational Trails Program (RTP) is making it easier for volunteers to give back.
As we explore during the hiking season, it can be easy forget that trails aren't as permanent as Washington's ancient mountains and alpine lakes. As paths are used by outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes, they need constant care to be kept in shape. This wouldn't be possible without grant programs that provide much-needed funding for trail work.
However, in spite of one program's decades of success, it's in danger of going away without hiker support. Learn more about the program, and how to take action for it.
The program at stake is the Recreational Trails Program (RTP). It provides funding that can be awarded to federal or state agencies as well as nonprofit organizations, like WTA, that provide volunteer trail maintenance on public lands. The RTP funding is critical to our trail maintenance program’s success. A smaller portion of RTP supports education projects in order to help fund wilderness rangers and other important trail user education efforts.
What is the Recreational Trails Program?
The federal trails program is funded as part of the Transportation Alternatives Program. Since the early 1990s, this national program has authorized the revenue generated by the gas tax on fuel used for off-highway recreation by snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, off-highway motorcycles, and off-highway light trucks to fund recreational trails that provide a backcountry experience.
The funds can be awarded to federal and state agencies as well as non-profit organizations that provide volunteer trail maintenance to land managers. Each year, Washington receives about $1.8 million to distribute as grants.
Because of WTA's unprecedented volunteer power, our projects consistently rank highly in the evaluations process. All applicants are required to match grant dollars with funds or donated materials and labor.
RTP funds pay for tools, supplies, travel costs and staff wages, allows WTA to hire crew leaders who can lead volunteers so they can be safe and have fun while doing trail maintenance.
Since 1996, RTP has contributed over $2.3 million to WTA volunteer trail projects. When volunteer investment is added, the total funding equals nearly $12 million. Many other nonprofits as well as the Forest Service have benefited greatly from this program as well.
WTA's partners like Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, Pacific Northwest Trail Association, Back Country Horsemen of Washington and many other organizations also rely on this program to complete trail work.
Preserving trail grants for the future
Not all of the worthy (and very much needed) projects proposed for RTP funding receive grants. Like many other recreation programs, RTP has been historically underfunded.
Recently, an amendment was proposed to the nation's transportation package that would have removed the Transportation Alternatives Package where RTP is funded. This would have meant hundreds of trail projects across the nation would have been without much-needed grants to get started on trail maintenance.
Luckily, Senators heard hikers' voices and the amendment never surfaced. However, RTP isn't safe forever. The program is subject to the appropriations project in Congress each year and there are many more projects proposed than funds available.
Getting kids outside, helping address maintenance needs
WTA work parties introduce kids and teens to trail maintenance through service projects for schools and youth organizations. For some volunteers, a WTA trail work party provides their first exposure to hiking and outdoor stewardship.
Adults get involved too in work parties where volunteers address maintenance needs of trails close to home or on multi-day backcountry trips to take care of more remote trails.
"Much of WTA's work through RTP directly addresses the maintenance backlog," said trail program director, Rebecca Lavigne.
RTP funds cannot be used for new construction, so the programs the funds support can be a big help to land managers facing multi-million dollar maintenance backlogs as budgets for the National Forest Service and National Park Service continue to decline.
There's a human impact, too. Volunteers often see work parties as an opportunity to participate in a community, make new friends and feel empowered after seeing what they can do.
"There were so many things I learned about myself and others while volunteering with WTA. I would recommend the experience to anyone willing to get their hands dirty and looking to volunteer with an unconventional group of people," said Elizabeth Hopmann, a Texas teen who spent two weeks volunteering with WTA this summer. By far, the volunteers building trails are the most diverse, yet connected group I have been around."
Even if you've never spoken with an elected official before, it's easy, and it is one of the most effective ways to be heard.
First, look up your Senators and Representatives' contact information. (All you need is your zipcode.) Then make the call. You will sometimes be able to speak directly to your senator or representative, but more often you will speak to a staff person in the member's office, who will track how many people called about an issue.
Introduce yourself, tell them why you are calling and what issue you are calling about. For example:
Hi, my name is _____. I live in ____, and I am an avid hiker. I use the hiking trails around my house and the state all summer and fall. I'm calling to ensure that the Recreational Trails Program funding remains in the Transportation Alternatives Program. Please protect RTP so hikers everywhere can continue to enjoy well-maintained trails. Thank you.
Thank you for taking the time to protect trails. You can get more involved by signing up for the Trail Action Network, or you can view the calendar of current trail work opportunities to volunteer on a trail near you.