The National Trails System is celebrating 50 years today — but what about the next 50 years?

The National Trails System is celebrating 50 years today — but what about the next 50 years?
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Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System, not only a beloved treasure for recreation but a major economic engine.

In 2017 alone, outdoor trail recreation in America accounted for $201 billion in spending and 1.7 million jobs. But the millions of people enjoying the Great American Outdoors aren’t all summiting Mt. Denali and trekking the Appalachian Trail.   

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We’re families out for a Saturday afternoon walk on our urban, paved trail; we’re members of Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro reclaiming our space in the Great Outdoors; we’re friends trying out camping for the first time (and probably getting hooked, because s’mores); we’re fathers taking their daughters to their favorite hunting camp. We’re conservative and liberal, Mayflower descendants and first-generation Americans, small-town Midwesterners and big city East Coasters.

You get the idea.

That’s probably why there are more miles in the National Trails System than there are in the National Interstate Highway System — 103,000 miles to be specific. Today as we mark half a century since the visionary act that led to the designation of those trails, all of us millions of trail users across the United States need to band together to urge Congress not to let die the legacy their colleagues left in 1968. Two pressing issues awaiting congressional action will determine whether we have continued access and use of our trails.

On Sept. 30, congressional authorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) expired, putting at risk funding not only for the National Trails System but National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, rivers and lakes, community parks, trails and ball fields in every one of our 50 states. 

We must demand permanent reauthorization and full funding of the LWCF.

The House needs to pass H.R. 502, which, at the time of writing, has 238 co-sponsors and has been passed out of the Natural Resources Committee with the support of Chairman Bishop (R-Utah) and ranking member Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). Meanwhile, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is considering LWCF legislation today. Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrIntel panel expects to refer more cases of suspected lying to Mueller Senate Intel leaders ask judge not to jail former aide amid leak investigation NRCC breach exposes gaps 2 years after Russia hacks MORE (R-N.C.), Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellCoal supporter Manchin named top Dem on Senate Energy Committee Can the climate movement survive populism? Lessons from 'yellow vest' protests Manchin’s likely senior role on key energy panel rankles progressives MORE (D-Wash.), and many others on both sides of the aisle are leading efforts on S. 896 and S. 569.

The LWCF does a great job of building new trails and completing partial trails, but we’ve also got a $21.1 billion backlog in trail, road, bridge and other infrastructure maintenance across National Park Service, National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service lands. We’re not just talking about places like Yosemite National Park, where most of us dream of visiting one day, but public lands everywhere, from the middle of Manhattan to Northern California, and from rural Minnesota to the Louisiana bayous.

The bipartisan Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act (H.R. 6510) in the House and the Senate’s Restore Our Parks Act (S. 3172) are headed in the right direction but, as they stand, neglect the U.S. Forest Service and its 157,000 miles of trail. We must tackle the maintenance backlog across all of the relevant land management agencies, including the Forest Service.

Those two critical funding sources do not comprise a menu of choices; they must be considered together, as complementary funds that each perform critical yet different functions. With the ultimate funding source for both deriving from off-shore energy development revenue, primarily the Outer Continental Shelf Fund, Congress must ensure that promised LWCF funding accompanies any funds to address deferred maintenance.

I challenge everyone to put on your sneaks or grab your bike and find one of the 3,230 National Scenic, Historic, Recreation or and Rail Trails to celebrate 50 years of the best trail system in world (Hint: there are four National Recreation Trails and one National Historic Trail inside the Beltway). If Congress doesn’t act, they may not be around for another 50.

Kathryn Van Waes is the executive director of American Hiking Society, which is the only national, recreation-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and protecting America’s hiking trails, their surrounding natural areas, and the hiking experience.