Pennsylvania Legacies #216: Deciding on Trails (repeat)

Trails can be a tremendous economic opportunity for small towns – but all the funding and political muscle in the world won’t matter if your trail project doesn’t address real community needs and center community voices. In this episode, we look back at a conversation with Amy Camp, a trails advocate and community-builder, discussing why the most successful Trail Town initiatives are built on an authentic local “trails culture” and a community-wide decision to invest in trails.

Everybody knows trails are good for business. They boost nearby property values, generate spending at local businesses, and help employers attract top talent to the area. These benefits have motivated lots of Pennsylvania cities and towns to embrace trail development – and in many postindustrial areas, trail-based tourism has been an economic lifeline.

Amy Camp

But, according to trail expert Amy Camp, the key to success for any trail project is authentic, organic, community-level support.

“I think that trails should serve local residents before anyone else,” said Ms. Camp. “I mean, we should build trails for our local residents, and then anyone who comes and enjoys them from other places – that’s added bonus.”

Ms. Camp helped pioneer the community-development concept of “Trail Towns” – a model with roots in Pennsylvania that has since been adopted by communities across North America.

The Trail Towns program launched in 2007 along the Great Allegheny Passage in southwestern PA. Since then, it’s become an international model for creating the kinds of conditions in which trailside communities can prosper – economically, socially, and culturally.

Ms. Camp was with the program from the very beginning, and the experience led her to start a consulting business, Cycle Forward, specializing in trail-centered community-building, with clients all over the U.S. and Canada. Her book, Deciding on Trails: 7 Practices of Healthy Trail Towns, synthesizes those lessons into practical advice for communities trying to define their relationship to their local trail system.

Episode links:

Josh Raulerson (00:01):

It is Friday, May 31st, 2024. I’m Josh Raulerson, and this is Pennsylvania Legacies, the podcast from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. At our Western PA dinner earlier this month, PEC recognized the town of Kane, in McKean County, as a trailblazing community, a place where investment in trail development and in other components of a thriving outdoor economy is fueling dramatic and much needed revitalization. In talking with community members leading that effort, one theme kept coming up:

Judge John Cleland (00:32):

For so many years, I think small rural communities wanted to make their communities places where other people wanted to live. That’s certainly part of our goal, but we’re the ones that live here. We’ve chosen to live here.

 Kate Kennedy (00:46):

This is from an inside out perspective, not just from a bringing people in. I think as a community, if we can embrace the trail and the arts, I think that we’re going to feel fulfilled, and I think we’re going to draw people to us naturally.

Tom Kase (00:58):

That’s the big take home. We’re trying to create an experience for those of us that live here that, so we all love it. And when you come visit, it’s like you just want more of it. You want to come back.

Josh Raulerson (01:08):

That strategy of serving local needs first has paid off for hundreds of trail towns like Kane, where a vibrant community provides the foundation for a bustling economy rather than the other way around. Many of those towns got there with help from Amy Camp. Amy’s consulting firm, Cycle Forward, grew out of her early involvement in the nationally recognized Trail Town program, in which PEC also played a role, working with communities along the Great Allegheny Passage. Since then, she’s adapted and advanced the model in up-and-coming trail towns across the country. And in 2021, she synthesized those years of experience into a book offering practical insights for communities considering an outdoor recreation based approach to economic development. Healthy trail towns, Amy writes, are those that offer more than just B&Bs and bike shops marketed to visitors. They’re towns with their own sense of place, where full-time residents have a feeling of ownership because trails and their associated amenities are woven into the fabric of the community.

Well, between the Memorial Day holiday and PEC’s annual staff retreat this week, we weren’t able to put together a brand new podcast episode. Instead, we’re revisiting our June, 2021 conversation with Amy Camp of Cycle Forward, whose book Deciding on Trails is more relevant now than ever. Hope you enjoy.

Josh Raulerson (02:35):

Amy, welcome back.

Amy Camp (02:36):

Thanks, Josh. It’s good to be here.

Josh Raulerson (02:38):

I want to go straight to the thesis of this book because it, you know, it’s kind of intention with something that I should speak for myself, I tend to take for granted, and that is the sort of the vaunted economic benefits of investing in trails and outdoor recreation and, you know, which is a real thing, right? But you start out by offering a sort of a, a corrective to that mindset, the idea that there is some danger inherent in overemphasizing the economic dimension of, of this. Could you talk about that? How did you come to that conclusion and why did you make that kind of the focus for starting out with the book?

Amy Camp (03:14):

I came to that conclusion over time. I started out working in trails emphasizing the economic benefit of trails, and that’s really important by the way. It’s often what hooks our decision makers. It’s the tangible difference that you sometimes see in communities and for people who live and operate small businesses in them. The economic impact is not to be underestimated. However, I noticed at some point in time that we had come to overemphasize the economic benefit of trails and, and weren’t really, I think as a trails community really touching on the other many benefits of trails. I mean, if you just go back to the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit, I think what we were leaving out of the conversation were the local people and how trails can improve quality of life. And I wanted to speak to that in the book.

Josh Raulerson (04:20):

The sort of vehicle for this approach that you’re advocating is this concept of trail towns, which a lot of our listeners will be familiar with, others might not. When did you first encounter that concept and how did it sort of become part of your thinking about trails and communities?

Amy Camp (04:35):

Right. I first encountered the concept of trail towns whenever I was hired to help implement the Trail Town program along the great Allegheny Passage. And that program, which was launched in 2007, it was the first known Trail Town initiative. It, it was a multi community program that became a multi-state program to help communities along that trail to better connect to it and better benefit from it. And like I said, we, we were, you know, pretty focused on trail tourism. And again, that’s important, but I think what I eventually came around to was the realization that not all of those communities had embraced the trail. You know, maybe some of the community leaders did and, and some of the businesses did, but that there’s not always an underlying trail culture in trail communities. And so that’s why I wanted to speak to this component of trail towns, which is the importance of having a culture in which, you know, the community has decided to embrace trails and, and not just for, for economic purposes.

Josh Raulerson (05:45):

It’s almost like the emphasis on the town rather than the trail in some way.

Amy Camp (05:49):

Yeah, absolutely.

Josh Raulerson (05:50):

And you mentioned the GAP, and in that case, I know Trail Town is a formal designation, that means a lot of specific things, but it, it doesn’t have to be, right? This could also just be sort of an aspirational label that you could put on your community if you’re, if you’re looking in this direction, what is it like, how do you, how does one qualify as a trail town? What makes a trail town to you?

Amy Camp (06:09):

It depends on where you are. The program that the Progress Fund and, and the Allegheny Trail Alliance imagined and implemented along the GAP is the, the starting point was the starting point for Trail Towns but then, you know, trail advocates and other places and community advocates took the concept and made it their own. And, and that continued to happen. That’s happened over the last 15 years or so. And what it means to be a trail town in Pennsylvania is different from what it means to be a trail town in Alaska, you know, as compared to what it means along the Appalachian Trail or in in Ontario. There are lots of different ways of interpreting and implementing this idea of trail towns. It, it certainly can be a designation, but I think at the core it’s an attitude. Yeah, it’s a, it’s a decision. And again, that’s why I called my book Deciding on Trails because I believe that every community located along a trail has the opportunity to, to decide to embrace and invest in their trail or trails. And you know, if you have a formal program, great, but there are also lots of things that can be done without even having a formal program,

Josh Raulerson (07:25):

And it does kind of have to come from within the community, right? I mean, maybe with some help or some nudging along from the outside from someone like you or, or, or like PEC. But generally this has to be a sort of community driven process on some level.

Amy Camp (07:37):

Yeah, I really think that it does to achieve the trail culture that we’re talking about. You know, whenever you have a program that is built around a long-distance trail like the GAP or the Appalachian Trail, or you have a program that’s run by a state agency, which exists in a few states, there is this outside entity that is able to help to, to push the initiative along. But at the end of the day, I, you have to have local community people that believe in the opportunity that trails provide to their community and are investing in, you know, implementing projects in, in their community to become more trail friendly.

Josh Raulerson (08:18):

So when you’re talking about the difference between a community that has a strong trails culture and one that doesn’t, a phrase that comes up a lot that you, that you use a lot is, is pain points. Can you define that term and give me some examples? What are pain points that makes some communities reluctant to decide on trails? And then how do, how do trail advocates, how should trail advocates address those, those pain points?

Amy Camp (08:42):

Quite simply, a, a pain point is a problem, whether real or perceived. If it’s an issue that brings somebody that a little bit of heartburn and frustration or, or a great amount of frustration that’s a pain point. And there are pain points in every community, and there are certainly pain points in trail communities and, you know, some of them have to do with the trail and, and some of them don’t. Pain points related to the trail, you know, might be businesses aren’t open later in the evenings whenever trail users are coming off the trail. Or somebody might say, oh, I don’t really feel like the trail is for me — that’s a pain point. Maybe a community has invested in infrastructure and invested in their trail, but it’s not being used like they’d like it to. That’s a source of pain and frustration. So there are so many different pain points related to trails into communities, and really this is less about trails and more about community. The conversations have to be held, you know, whenever there are issues and problems in a community, there has to be an effort at the community level to address them and, and to do good old fashioned community building. That’s really what’s needed. And you know, it just so happens that, you know, we are talking about trails and they provide, you know, certain opportunities and also come along sometimes with sources of frustration in other ways, trails are able to alleviate pain points.

Josh Raulerson (10:11):

Well, it’s kind of a point of pride for Pennsylvania that the Trail Towns model kind of originated here. And you were there pretty close to the inception from what I understand. And this is an approach that has since then spread all over North America and the U.S. and Canada. Since your, your day-to-day work involves helping communities and organizations move these kinds of projects forward, and you do that all over the country, what have you seen out there in the area of how the idea of trail towns has been interpreted, has been applied and leveraged by different communities in different regions?

Amy Camp (10:43):

Well, first I want to speak to what you said about trail towns being a point of pride. I’m, I’m glad that you said that. I certainly feel that., I wrote in the book that Pennsylvania could be considered the home state of trail towns. You know, we, we did the Trail Town program along the GAP and then, you know, it was adapted along other trails. Kathy McCollum went on to do the River Town program, so there’s a lot of Trail Town and now Outdoor Town initiatives that, that are throughout the state of Pennsylvania. And that’s pretty cool. As for how the model has been adapted and used in different ways, you know, one of the first entities after us to start a program was the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and they created their trail community program and just think about how cool this is. The Trail Town program was designed for a 150-mile rail trail, and the Trail Conservancy took that program, made it their own, and applied it to a 2,200-mile footpath with multiple states.

So they really took it and really just adapted it. And it’s just kind of mind blowing to me, the, the fact that, that they could apply it to that kind of geography. Something that I love about their program is that I think they were really early in pushing for that community culture that, that embraces the trail and connects to it. They have a trail in every classroom model that they use to get kids out and classes out onto the trail, and they you know, require communities to, you know, meet certain criteria. First of all, they had have to apply to become a designated trail community, and I thought that was like a step in the right direction for, for trail towns and the communities have to meet criteria to receive and to maintain that designation. One of them is to host an annual celebration.

You know so there, there you have it. Like, that’s not about the economics, that’s about the local community people celebrating and, and enjoying the Appalachian Trail. So that’s one that I’d like to mention. And then another interesting thing is that the state of Kentucky came along not that long after and decided to operate a trail town program out of its Office of Adventure Tourism. I think I have that right. And that was the first initiative that was run by a state agency. And many years later, Florida created a program and Michigan created a program. So to me that’s an interesting variation from, from the traditional model that’s based on a single trail.

Josh Raulerson (13:24):

And just sort of through happenstance of timing, I guess you were working on this book as the COVID-19 pandemic happens, and as a result, you’re able to actually include a chapter on this episode in our history as it relates to trails. Something that, as you know very well, PEC has been paying close attention to. You’ve been on this podcast talking about exactly that subject. And this is another area where, you know, we have sort of our established talking points that reflect thinking and assumptions about the role that trails play in communities, and particularly how that plays out in something like a global pandemic. I guess the question is, what from your vantage point, has this crisis taught us? Or what can it teach us about the role of trails in different kinds of communities in Pennsylvania, nationwide, whatever kind of frame you want to put it in?

Amy Camp (14:12):

You know, I think anyone who’s, who’s walking down the street and past their local park or trail or or on their local trail could tell you that trails have been busier. I mean, the research that we did, you know, in terms of how the pandemic impacted Pennsylvania trails is, you know, the results are aligned with, with what’s been, you know, observed around the country, probably around the globe. People are taking to trails and to nature as a way of, of coping and as a way of just, you know, enjoying all of their newfound free time during the pandemic. So it’s, it’s been wonderful to see that happen, and I think the Trails community is, is really paying close attention to how that has all unfolded and how to continue to keep people interested in, in getting outside. I think something else that, that was interesting about the pandemic’s impact on trails and trail communities was just to realize that, that there are a lot of nuances to it.

Amy Camp (15:19):

You know, I wrote in the book that bike shops did really bang up business all year. They couldn’t keep up, they can’t get inventory in and, and they, they can’t, you know, satisfy all of their customer’s needs. So I guess you could say that the pandemic benefited a lot of bike shops economically speaking, but take a bed and breakfast located along a destination trail or a restaurant or a shuttle service located along a destination trail. And their 2020 business story was a lot different, you know, just because there was a drop off in travel. And so there’s a lot to still understand, I think, and, and there’s a lot of nuance in how trail communities were affected by the pandemic. You know, something else that I think that we have learned is about the resiliency of people and communities. And whenever I first set out to write that chapter on the pandemic, it was going to be exclusively on the pandemic.

Amy Camp (16:22):

And but then I realized, well, there’s a bigger story here. And you know, it’s titled “Navigating Pandemics and Other Hard Times” because trail communities are always facing different challenges. You may have seen, I talked about extreme weather and, you know, whenever there might be a trail detour or your main street is torn up with construction, there, there are always issues that, you know, often small rural communities are facing when it comes to, to trails and tourism. And I think that community resiliency piece is, is really important that we work on ensuring that, that our communities are as resilient and vibrant as possible and, and adaptive.

Josh Raulerson (17:02):

Yeah, and there’s that, again, bringing it back to, you know, is this serving actual community needs? Is this responding to demands being made in the community? I mean, at the same time as like the economic picture with Covid has been kind of a mixed bag, at the same time, it seems like that other aspect of it, that non-economic, that sort of quality of life and resiliency and all those other good things that really play out at the local level that really comes to the fore in a situation like this.

Amy Camp (17:28):

Yeah, it sure does. And I mean, I think that trails should serve local residents before anyone else. I mean, we should build trails for our local residents and then, you know, anyone who comes and enjoys them from other places, that’s, that’s added bonus, right? Last year, whenever we were being told not to travel and to find the trail close, you’re close to home trail, right? The trails that are 15 minutes from you. It, it was local people who were going out and, and using our trails and, and keeping them active. And to me, one of the lessons of the pandemic is to remember that trails should be serving a local audience.

Josh Raulerson (18:07):

Well, this actually goes to another really important issue right now, in particular as the trails community, like so many other sectors of society is really grappling with these issues of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, specifically like disparities in access to who can actually get to a trail within five minutes of their home. How do they use it? What kind of experience do they have? What are their expectations? All of that. Can we make that connection and expand it out a little bit more and talk about what can be learned by viewing these more kind of social justice issues, if you will, through the lens of something like trail towns?

Amy Camp (18:43):

You know, local people don’t always feel welcome to trails. And the way that I think of it is, is some people don’t need an invitation to trails. I mean, they just find their nearest trail head and they, they go and they use it and they enjoy it. But there are a lot of other people that just see trails and other, you know, outdoor amenities as being not for them. And I think that what we need to do as a trail community is to really challenge that narrative and to help to inform people about trails and, and how they can come and use them and enjoy them. I write in deciding on trails about extending the invitation, and we, in the realm of trail towns have for a long time understood how to invite trail users into our community, but I think a lot of people just weren’t really actively thinking about how to invite local people out to trails.

Amy Camp (19:46):

And whenever we’re talking about equity and inclusion, like I said, there are some people that do require an invitation and we need to make that invitation appealing. We, we really need to find ways to activate our trails in our outdoor spaces. And that could be through events and programs and challenges. There is no shortage of creative ideas. But, but at the end of the day, we have to ensure that that local residents feel welcome and, and that they want to enjoy trails and, and that they, they view the trails as theirs, that there’s a sense of ownership and beyond the idea of making everybody in our communities feel welcome to use and enjoy trails, there’s also an opportunity to ensure that, that they have the opportunity to be part of the trail economy to improve their life chances by opening a small business or getting a job with a trail business. And that residents also have the opportunity to be a part of community building and, you know, are able to help make decisions about trails and, and how they intersect with our communities.

Amy Camp (20:57):

The book is Deciding on Trails: Seven practices of healthy trail towns, and I do, I should emphasize that we’ve been talking about these kind of high level ideas and there’s a lot of that, it makes it very readable and engaging, but at the same time, there’s a lot of practical advice for communities and community leaders who are interested in going down this road. So this would be the point where you tell our listeners how to get ahold of a copy, right?

Amy Camp (21:19):

You can visit my website, cycle forward.org/book, and it’s right there. It’s also available on Amazon, and if you’re able to order it through your local bookseller, even better.

Josh Raulerson (21:32):

All right, Amy, thanks again for being on the show,

Amy Camp (21:34):

Josh, thank you so much.

Josh Raulerson (21:39):

Amy Camp is owner of Cycle Forward and author of Deciding on Trails: Seven practices of healthy trail towns. Get your copy at cycleforward.org. That’s all for this time. Thanks for being a Pennsylvania Legacies listener. Hopefully you’re also a subscriber. If you’re not, you can become one at pecpa.org, the website of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. There you can learn more about PEC and our mission, support our work on trails and outdoor recreation, watershed protection and restoration, climate and clean energy policy and more. Again, that’s at pecpa.org, pecpa.org. Hope you’ll join us for the next edition of Pennsylvania Legacies. Until then, for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, I’m Josh Raulerson, and thanks for listening.