Highlights from the California Trails and Greenways Conference
By: Rachel Fussell, eMTB policy and program manager
Nine high-level takeaways from this year’s conference, with an emphasis on how trails can be a multifunctional asset to communities nationwide.
Last month, with the Palm Springs desert in full bloom and snow atop San Jacinto, the region's highest peak, hundreds of passionate trail managers, advocates, and experts gathered for the 2023 California Trails and Greenways Conference. With more than 30 educational sessions and workshops over three days, the conference focused on the role of trails in connecting people to the land and one another. In attendance were members of the trail stewardship community as well as land managers, researchers, conservationists, mountain bike organizations, active transportation advocates, and regional, state, and federal officials.
PeopleForBikes and partners from WRA Environmental Consultants and California State Parks presented a session on "How to Plan for and Manage eMTB Use." During the session, Matthew Richmond from WRA presented findings from current research and studies on eMTB environmental impacts, including trail tread and wildlife studies. Maria Mowry, district superintendent with California State Parks, joined our team in presenting the results from two eMTB pilot studies in California and Vermont on the use of Class 1 pedal-assist eMTBs on natural surface singletrack trails.
Another conference highlight was a first-of-its-kind workshop led by Matthew Anzalone, executive director of the California Mountain Biking Coalition (CAMTB). “CAMTB recognized a gap in the conference content intended to educate and activate conference attendees, specifically trails and greenways practitioners, in the legislative process,” he said. “[Conference attendees] are a vested audience so it's both important to inspire them to take action and to provide the necessary tools and resources to support those efforts.” His interactive, long-format workshop provided a great forum to do just that.
The following are nine high-level takeaways from this year’s conference, with an emphasis on how trails can be a multifunctional asset to communities nationwide:
1. Trails Are Climate Solutions
California, along with the rest of the world, is facing several challenges as we work to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change and manage infrastructure of all scales. Trails, which have become increasingly critical for recreation, health, and transportation, are often built along waterways and coastlines, prone to flooding as well as sea level rise and “extreme” rain events. Others are located in areas inclined to wildfire and extreme heat. However, trail corridors can also be part of the climate solution, managing stormwater, providing access for firefighters, and helping communities reduce greenhouse gas emissions by shifting more trips to walking, biking, and electric-assist devices.
2. Trails Are Resilient
In the age of the climate crisis, planning and designing resilient trails to mitigate climate change will be key. Planners from across California came together to speak about how trails are providing critical infrastructure in building communities that can better adapt and be more resilient to future hazards.
Case studies where trails are incorporating multi-benefit strategies for addressing more frequent and more extreme heat events, ecosystem health, drought, food shortages, and community connectivity included: a Level of Comfort tool developed for the Los Angeles River Path, which uses climate change-related risks to path users to help inform design solutions to provide protection from extreme heat events; a community orchard, wildlife bridge, and native habitat restoration for the Park to Playa Trail; and the conservation and restoration of urban open spaces at the Taylor Yard near downtown Los Angeles and hilltops in Northeast Los Angeles.
3. Trails Are Multifunctional
Trails offer many benefits to their surrounding communities, providing access to recreation and active transportation, serving as emergency access routes, helping connect folks to transit, and making up key arteries in urban and rural centers. The trail community needs to find more compelling ways to share the story behind the benefits of trails with communities, policymakers, and funders.
4. Trails Are Conservation
Along with more than 200 countries across the world, California has committed to conserving 30% of lands and coastal waters by 2030 through its 30x30 Initiative. This commitment is a critical strategy to prevent habitat loss and expand access to nature and all its benefits. Access and protection of lands for recreation and trails will contribute to this goal.
The outdoor recreation community sees great potential in the 30x30 Initiative implementation to not only protect biodiversity and advance climate protections, but also to support outdoor recreation, the outdoor recreation economy, and equitable access to the outdoors. Working lands, recreation lands, open spaces, dedicated conservation areas, and marine protected areas — including federal, state, private, and local lands — all count toward reaching the 2030 goal.
5. Trails Are Active Transportation
Trails aren’t just for recreation. They connect our communities, help transport people, contribute to a healthy lifestyle, and combat climate change by giving people another transportation option instead of driving. As a community, we should be thinking of trails as part of active transportation planning, not just paved streets and highways.
One case, the San Lorenzo Creekway Master Plan, highlights how cities and communities can build equitable active transportation solutions. The plan would take an existing maintenance road alongside the concrete channel creek path and expand its use. Once completed, the San Lorenzo Creekway will provide up to 10+ miles of primarily pedestrian, bicycle, and roller multi-use path for both healthy living and active transportation benefits.
6. Trails Are Economic Drivers
Trails and outdoor recreation opportunities can transform small and rural communities. As Greg Williams, executive director of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship noted in his presentation, recreation tourism benefits economically disadvantaged communities in California’s Plumas, Sierra, Butte, Lassen, and Nevada Counties. Trails as economic development tools can shift the focus from extractive industries while providing stability and environmental benefits, such as fire recovery and prevention efforts. Trails can also help create a learning landscape for outdoor and environmental education programs that can employ youth and other community members.
7. Trails Are Good Policy
Trails and greenways are an important asset to every community and they should be supported by every policymaker, regardless of party affiliation. During CAMTB’s “State and Federal Legislative Round-Up and Strategy” session, the focus was on recreation and trail-specific legislation that can help communities with important active transportation infrastructure, economic development, and healthy lifestyles.
The group, which included attendees from the California Outdoor Recreation Partnership, Outdoor Alliance, IMBA, CalTrans, and local land trust staff, discussed several bills: The California Recreational Trails and Greenways Act (AB 411), which would establish a competitive $12 million fund for recreational natural surface trail investments, and the California Scenic Bikeways Act (AB 1212), which would establish a scenic bikeway network in California that prioritizes rural and significant areas for economic development.
8. Trails Can Foster More Equity + Inclusion
Community trail efforts are increasingly focusing on providing equitable access to trails, which can create substantial benefits for public health and quality of life. Unfortunately, in many areas, access to trails is inequitably distributed and can be less abundant in lower-income neighborhoods with a larger share of minority residents, which can be exacerbated by a history of segregation in public places and a lack of racial and ethnic representation in trail and conservation organizations.
The benefit of parks and trails is greatest for those who live closest to these resources, and a disparity in access can have significant health, social, and economic implications, while also exacerbating environmental justice concerns in communities. However, more cities and towns are improving access by incorporating trails and pathways as part of their planning, development, and revitalization standards—moving beyond trails as a recreational amenity and incorporating trails as critical contributors to goals in public health, climate resilience, and transportation.
Several sessions focused on advancing equity in all aspects of recreation and trails. One of the presenters, Lily Brown with Equitable and Active Transportation, shared case studies and examples of positive momentum, including the Bay Trail Equity Strategy, that can be used to help more agencies and organizations to take courageous steps towards more equitable access and trail planning. It is critical to address and overcome these barriers to equity work moving forward and creating better spaces for all to enjoy.
9. We Need to Keep the Momentum for Trails Going
Our world has changed over the last several years, and with those changes have come opportunities and challenges for trails. The rapid change brought on by the pandemic has had wide-ranging effects on land managers, advocacy organizations, and communities throughout the U.S., including substantial increases in trail use. As part of these changes, we all need to continue working to build and sustain the amazing growth our trails community and industry have seen in recent years.