Canada needs a national recreational trails program

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Cyclists on The Great Trail (formerly Trans Canada Trail) in the County of Lacombe, Alberta. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

Canada would do well to follow the lead of the U.S. on recreational trails.

Under the U.S. National Trails System Act, scenic trails, historic trails, recreation trails, and side and connecting trails can be designated in both urban and rural settings.

These are used by people of all ages and physical abilities. Most are hiking trails. Some allow motorized use. A few are water trails.

The most famous national scenic trails, and the first established under the act, are the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest trails. These are long, continuous trails within protected corridors.

The U.S. now recognizes over 1,300 national recreation trails -- local or regional trails formally designated with the consent of the landowner (e.g., a municipal or state government, an NGO, or a private entity).

The U.S. federal government has funded trails for many years. In 2018 it allocated $83 million (ranging from $825,000 for Washington, D.C. to $5.75 million for California), using a portion of the fuel tax collected from off-road vehicles.

Canada briefly had its own National Recreational Trails Program. It ended in 2015-16, having received $10 million in federal funding over a final two-year period.

Much of the money was for snowmobile and off-road vehicle trails. Some was for the Trans-Canada Trail (now The Great Trail), a mixture of paved and gravel roads, abandoned rail lines, mountain bike paths, and waterways.

In September 2018, federal environment minister Catherine McKenna announced $30 million over four years "to enhance and maintain" The Great Trail. But critics charge that The Great Trail is a "dangerous hoax," with numerous highway stretches, sandy portions suitable only for ATV use, and frequent and confusing route changes.

A well-designed national recreational trails program would address the needs of a much wider range of users than a single trans-Canada route.

I chair an informal trail advisory group for the County of Renfrew in rural Ontario. The county purchased the former CP rail line along the Ottawa River, named it the Algonquin Trail, and is converting it for multi-use.

Motorized trail users (snowmobiles, ATVs) are a major part of our local economy. Snowmobile clubs contribute significant money and labour to brushing trails, upgrading rail bridges, and installing signs. Multi-use seems to work. Dog walkers, cyclists and ATVers can get along.

New trail development can trigger hostility from future trail neighbours. One rural landowner erected an illegal barrier across the Algonquin Trail. Homeowners in a suburban area oppose its completion.

But research shows that, once trails are in place, nearby residents believe trails either enhance property values or have a neutral effect. A study based on a large number of real-estate transactions confirms this.

Property values aside, a huge and growing literature confirms the physical and mental health benefits of exercising -- or just resting -- in natural settings. An excellent book on this topic is The Nature Fix by Florence Williams.

Calling on all parties in Canada's minority Parliament: put a national recreational trails program on your agenda.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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