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May 3, 2023

North Carolina’s Year of the Trail

By: Kiran Herbert, content manager

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A year-long marketing campaign aims to highlight the benefits of trails, garnering more support and funding in the process.

North Carolina officially named 2023 the “Year of the Trail.” For most mountain bikers and recreationists who utilize trails to connect with nature, boost their mental health, and as a great form of exercise, the declaration was an undeniable win. But what exactly does the designation entail?

Palmer McIntyre, a conservation planner with the Greensboro-based Piedmont Land Conservancy, describes the Year of the Trail as a $1 million marketing campaign meant to raise awareness about one of North Carolina’s greatest assets and build a future where all of the state’s counties enjoy the proven benefits of trails. In addition to her full-time role as a conservationist, McIntyre also spearheads the Great Trails State Coalition, a 70-member-strong collaborative composed of nonprofits, government agencies, and industry partners. 

The coalition was formed with the goal of garnering more state funding for trails and came up with the Year of the Trail designation as a way to bring that vision to life. In 2021, the coalition pushed the North Carolina state legislature to name 2023 the year of the trail and House Bill 554 easily passed the House and the Senate before being signed into law by the governor. As written, “the State of North Carolina would encourage all North Carolinians to use their local and regional trail networks, to further enhance the State’s trail networks, and to pay tribute to those who maintain these public amenities.” 

“It’s literally the law — no one has ever done something like this to the magnitude we’re doing it,” says McIntyre, noting how the coalition drew inspiration from smaller legislative efforts in Indiana and Ohio. “It’s the biggest celebration of the outdoors in North Carolina history.”

The Year of the Trail goals are relatively simple: Inspire people to try trails of all different types and better connect with the landscape around them. By educating, informing, and engaging a broad spectrum of people — in part by hosting events in all 100 North Carolina counties — the Great Trails State Coalition hopes to also increase diversity among users and make trails more inclusive. DEI stipends for encouraging engagement from underrepresented groups and building partnerships with non-endemic organizations are key to the overall vision. To achieve its myriad of goals, the coalition enlisted the help of YouTuber Seth Alvo.

Alvo, who lives in Asheville, runs Berm Peak, one of the most popular mountain bike channels in the world with 2.5 million subscribers. A passionate trail advocate, Alvo successfully raised funds to build Berm Park, a free skills park located in nearby Canton that opened to the public in 2022. That same year, the Great Trails State Coalition reached out to Alvo to serve on its Year of the Trail advisory committee. In time, it became apparent that he’d have a greater impact by overseeing the campaign’s media strategy and creating content.

“What we’re really trying to accomplish is taking the Year of the Trail resources and making them last longer than the campaign itself,” says Alvo, who works in partnership with Daniel Sapp (the duo run a consulting agency called The Backslope). “We could just use our funding to build trails but I think we can do more to make people realize where trails come from and why they’re needed.”

Most people, even avid trail users, would experience a bit of sticker shock if they found out how much trails actually cost to build and maintain. By putting that investment into context, and helping folks understand the economic benefits and reduction in healthcare costs, for example, the campaign hopes to create more local advocates and allies in government. Alvo and his team’s strategy is to first get people engaged through the content they’re producing and building up an audience before segueing into legislative action to create lasting change. 

“We want to get all these voices together that are interested in trails and leverage their voices,” says Alvo. “Long term, we hope to provide the talking points to be convincing before helping them get in touch with local governments. We feel that can have a wide-reaching effect.”

The Year of the Trail website offers a Trail Community Toolkit so communities can use best practices when holding trail events and engaging community members with helpful resources, background information on the campaign itself, and the history, impact, and opportunities surrounding North Carolina trails. It also includes templates, logos, and other necessary branding assets. 

“We’re providing the resources so communities can do advocacy work for trails on their own,” says McIntyre. “Our ultimate goal is to help our residents and elected leaders understand the importance of trails as part of their community infrastructure.”

Investment continues to be crucial for trails in North Carolina and across the nation. Most outdoor recreation takes place on trails and with more people utilizing them each year, largely spurred by the pandemic, more money for infrastructure and improvements is needed to meet the growing demand.

Even more, studies prove that trails provide impressive economic and health benefits. “Economic, Environmental, and Social Benefits of Recreational Trails,” a report from the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office released in 2019 found that investing in trails is worth the cost. For instance, the study found that for every dollar spent on trails, trail users saved $2.94 in healthcare costs. 

In North Carolina, the benefits to trail investment are no different, with one study showing that for every dollar spent on trails, the return is $1.72. Trails and greenways are a vital part of community infrastructure and are the cornerstone of North Carolina’s $11.8 billion outdoor recreation industry. Having lost much of their once-flourishing textile and manufacturing industries, many North Carolina communities are realizing outdoor recreation is one of their greatest assets for economic prosperity.

“We want to spur more intentional investment to make communities more attractive for tourism, improving the quality of life and health of all North Carolinians,” says McIntyre, noting that North Carolina has not traditionally invested a lot in trails — typically, it's all federal pass-through money. “We’ve built the Year of the Trail branding but we’re also building a more permanent vision for North Carolina — we're branding North Carolina as the ‘Great Trail State.’”

Relying on Alvo’s content team is key to this sustained strategy. Simply asking people to engage or watch an educational video doesn’t work in a world where everyone’s social media feeds are crowded and attention spans are short. A lot of the campaign’s content will touch on things many experienced trail users might take for granted, including Leave No Trace principles and explainers on why cell phones don’t work in the wilderness, but there will also be plenty of entertaining content on what makes trails enjoyable.

“You have to entertain people first. Give people something of value and once they see something interesting, they’ll come back for more,” says Alvo. “Making content that’s fun and entertaining — that’s more important.”

Going beyond just bicycling and ensuring content is accessible to all types of trail users is equally important. The Year of the Trail campaign is really about getting outside, and trails are the main mechanism for people to do just that.

“If it increases the access to mountain bike trails or off-road trails or gravel, that's great,” says Alvo. “But we're really trying to get everybody on board because that's the only way we're going to get governments and municipalities to dedicate resources to trails.”

Alvo points to Arkansas as another state where a small group of bike enthusiasts managed to have an outsized impact on the overall recreation economy, achieving notable wins for all trail users. As with most things that offer undeniable benefits to communities, once trails are built, promoted, and used, support for them continues to grow. The Year of the Trail is a model for fueling that cycle. If successful, every state should take note.

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