Canada needs a national recreational trails program

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

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

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.