A Call to Action — and Moment of Zen — From the American Trails National Symposium

Reader Contribution by Staff

You may not know Dayton Duncan’s name, but you’re probably familiar with his work. Even if you don’t own a television, you surely heard the buzz last year about Ken Burn’s spectacular mini-series, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.

Well, Duncan was the man behind the camera, scripting the narrative that earned the 12-part documentary two Emmy Awards for outstanding writing. Last week, Duncan served as an inspiring keynote speaker at the American Trails National Symposium.

I had the lucky job of representing the Alliance for Biking & Walking at the biennial event that brings together a diversity of folks who care about trails and greenways — federal agency staff, state government officials, city planners, volunteer advocates and dirt-turning engineering outfits. This year, there was plenty to celebrate. The conversations in the halls and the presentations in the workshops showcased the overwhelming and tangible evidence that trails enhance the health, economic vitality and environmental sustainability of the communities they serve.

But there was also an undertone of concern. Like I noted in my post about the loss of Congressman Jim Oberstar, the midterm election has put federal funding for bicycle and pedestrian in serious peril. “Make no mistake about it,” Marianne Fowler, a vice president at the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy said at the conference. “Trails are in the crosshairs… Staff members of the incoming majority have publicly said that one of the first things they want to eliminate in transportation funding is Transportation Enhancements and trail funding. That’s us, guys. Let’s get real here. We’ve got a fight on our hands and we need to get prepared for that fight.” (I wrote a whole blog about it here.)

So Duncan’s speech, on the last day of the conference, was inspiration to suit up and go to battle. And, while his address related most directly to trails and national parks, I couldn’t help but apply his insight to the broader bicycle and pedestrian movement.

Duncan spoke eloquently of John Muir’s spiritual conversion and passionate crusades to preserve our sacred vistas and valleys. Duncan suggested that, in our work to create environments that get more Americans off the couch and into the open air, we are following in Muir’s footsteps. By creating the infrastructure and shaping a culture that better serves the spirit and health of future generations, we are equally immortal.

On one hand, Duncan’s speech made me want to ditch my job, hop on a bike and start pedaling across the country to take in all 58 national parks. But on the other, it framed the importance of the daily grind of bike-ped advocacy. We’re not designating national parks, but Alliance member organizations have a similar, perhaps even more important, goal. We’re enhancing our everyday public spaces to better serve our physical and spiritual wellbeing — and the health of generations to come.

Here are just a few snippets from Duncan’s speech:

“We are a nation more and more urban, more and more disconnected from the natural world, more and more distracted by the virtual realities that engulf us — from meeting friends on Facebook, to talking to people on Twitter, to watching reality shows about real housewives or real kids, and, yes, even spending 12 hours watching a documentary film about national parks, instead of taking 30 minutes to walk in a city park. We’re a nation in desperate need of getting up off the couch and out in open air. Everything you do encourages that noble essential goal, so thank you very much for what you do.

“You’ve heard a lot about trails the last few days and a lot of focus on trails is, very rightfully, about how good they are for people’s health… For me, trails are important, not so much for my physical health, but I think about what they do for my spiritual health; not just strengthening your heart, but touching your heart and transforming your life. There’s an old Native American saying: All roads are good. In other words, it’s not the destination; it’s the journey. It’s not what you set off to find, but what you discover along the way that matters the most. And I’d like to modify that today and declare, All trails are good… All trails are good because they invite you to open yourself up to experience the world, not on Facebook, but face-to-face, not through a plasma screen, but through no screen at all…

“Few of us are John Muir. We may not have his eloquence, his distilled passion, his unbending determination and therefore his immense immortal impact on the world. But all of us understand the importance of national parks, city parks and trails and all the public lands, which he championed. We all here agree that all trails are good because they can open us up to connection to rest of creation and expose us to something bigger than ourselves. All trails are good, not just for our physical health, but our spiritual health — maybe for our spiritual health most of all… That’s why the work you do is so important. Every 100 yards of trails — no, every yard of trail — wherever it is, newly made or restored, makes a difference. Every person you encourage to take one of those trails is made better because of your work. Therefore, like John Muir you are impacting and shaping a future we won’t see, but that we hope will be better than the present.”

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