I tell my wife that I love the Johnstown area because I can find myself immersed in nature with a very short drive. Years ago, I moved here from another state where this is becoming increasingly hard to do. People are coming to enjoy the outdoor recreation opportunities in the area. Whether they enjoy skiing at one of the area resorts, fishing in our streams, rivers and lakes or paddling the Whitewater Park at Greenhouse Park, they are coming. That is one of the reasons that the Stoneycreek River was named the 2012 Pennsylvania River of the Year last year.
One of the things that is drawing outdoor recreation enthusiasts to the area are the hiking and biking trails. We have many types of trails throughout our area and our state. Trails through our national, state and municipal parks, trails through our national and state forests. We have long distance trails such as the Mid State Trail, the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail right in our own back yard and even one of the most revered trails in the United States, the Appalachian Trail.
Pennsylvania is also one of the national leaders in one particular type of hiking and biking trail, rail trails. Rail trails are trails developed along abandoned railroad right-of-ways. According to information from the Rails-to-trails Conservancy, Pennsylvania is number one in the nation with 163 rail trails already in use covering 1614 miles (which ranks fourth in the nation). In addition, Pennsylvania ranks third, tied with California in the number of rail trail projects currently underway with 56 projects. These numbers include at least ten trails in the area surrounding Johnstown including the Ghost Town Trail, the Six to Ten Trail (formerly the Allegheny Portage Trail) and the Path of the Flood Trail all of which were included in the 2011 Greenway Sojourn.
When we go out on a trail to hike or bike, we may not realize what it takes to build and maintain the trails that we enjoy. Money and labor are the very important to maintaining our trails. With proper funds, our trails will stay usable for a long time. This is one reason that hikers and bikers are concerned about the effects of the sequester on our trails and our enjoyment of these trails.
This was the topic of an email from Keith Laughlin, the President of the Rails-to-trails Conservancy this week. The information showed a change in tactics by the organization with the mission to see abandoned railways and other transportation properties turned into hiking and biking trails. In 2012, the main effort was to encourage members and others to contact their Senators and Representatives to advocate against cutting funds. With the latest communication that came after the sequester, they are attempting to give advice to trail clubs and those working on rail trail projects.
Mr. Laughlin suggests that clubs and communities working on rail trail projects focus on three things to offset possible losses from the sequester. One step is to encourage partners and state agencies to obligate funds as soon as possible. This is because the funding will be more difficult to get as time passes. It would be easier to get funding in April than it would be in September. Secondly, he suggests that projects be considered with a higher than required local matching of funds. The more that you can raise locally, the less that you have to rely on from the federal government. And lastly, he suggests that you should encourage your state Department of Transportation to use safety funds for trail projects as these will not be as greatly affected by the cuts.
In fewer words, rely on your local funding because the sequester is going to affect projects and programs that rely on the federal government for financial support. So how will the sequester (last time I will mention that, I promise) affect our trails for hiking and biking in Johnstown? I feel that we are already set up to be successful without the federal money. The affects would not be immediate, but take place over an extended time. However, in Pennsylvania and in the Johnstown area, we are ahead because of our community involvement with trails. Many of our trails are located on state property (state parks, forests, game lands). These organizations have been very successful over the past several years at maintaining the trails even with cuts to state budgets. One saving grace for DCNR (state parks and forests) has been revenue from lease agreements with companies involved in gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale.
In Pennsylvania our public lands also benefit from a great volunteer base. Some volunteer groups may be private or non-profit groups such as boy scouts or trail clubs that help maintain larger trails like the Appalachian and Tuscarora Trails. There are also groups like LHORBA (Laurel Highlands On and Off Road Biking Association). They have worked very hard at maintaining and building mountain bike trails at Yellow Creek, Blue Knob, and Shawnee State Parks. These efforts also benefit hikers as many of these trails are shared for both activities. Even private sector industry has stepped up to help. Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI) requires all employees to take part in community service projects, which also include trail building and maintenance. The REI Distribution Center in Bedford has worked with several of the municipal and state parks by maintaining trails.
One other bonus is the support from Pennsylvania DCNR. They have a grant program that has continued to provide funds for projects to improve the trails throughout the state. Over the past several years these grants have been used for projects on the Path of the Flood Trail, Ghost Town Trail, the Allegheny Highlands Trail and the James Mayer Riverwalk in Johnstown. Even when the need is there, DCNR has found a way to set aside funds for emergency repairs too. For example, when the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail Bridge over the PA Turnpike was found to be structurally unsound, DCNR found the funds to help replace the bridge, which was the most direct and safest route to cross over the turnpike.
So to answer the question, I believe that we should not see much change in our trails. However, I do encourage all trail users to take an active part in maintaining our trails. Follow the Leave No Trace Principles and keep our trails beautiful. Make an effort to find out how you can help with your favorite trails. If you enjoy using the trails in our state parks, become a Conservation Volunteer. Let’s work together to keep our trails on track.