Public Lands Alliance Partnership Award Entries to the Innovative Product, Outstanding Public Engagement and Publication of the Year Categories are eligible for the Partners Choice Award. The voting limit is one vote per person. Voting closes February 28, 2018 at 3pm (PT)
category:Outstanding Public Engagementtitle:Trails Foreversubmitted by:Friends of the Smokiespartners:Great Smoky Mountains National Park, National Park Service; Aslan Foundation; REIyear:2008 - 2017application:Trails Forever facilitates meaningful engagement by connecting visitors to the hiking trails in the Smokies. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited in America, with more than 11 million visitors annually. Every year thousands of these visitors experience the Smokies through the park’s nearly 900 miles of trails. Trails Forever plays a critical role in sustaining these trails, and facilitates positive experiences through volunteerism and recreation in the park, improving safety... (view more) and enjoyment, and protecting natural resources.
The Trails Forever volunteer program provides an opportunity to gain experience doing actual trail rehabilitation work. Skilled and non-skilled volunteers work with National Park Service staff every Wednesday from mid-May through mid-September. Hundreds of volunteers have given their time and effort to improve park trails through public workdays, alternative spring breaks, and corporate service days. Groups from REI, Alcoa, the Junior Marine Corps, NYU, UVA, the Student Conservation Association, the American Conservation Experience, and many other places and organizations have traveled to the Smokies to work with Trails Forever. Much of the success of the program is attributed to the practice of volunteers being paired up with trained crewmembers to receive direct supervision and training, acquiring a high level of skills. The tangible work accomplished by the volunteers is impressive to all, and the high rate of retuning volunteers is indicative of the creation of lasting engagement. To date, nearly 73,000 volunteer hours through Trails Forever have benefited Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Friends of the Smokies and Trails Forever further engage public land visitors and enthusiasts through the Classic Hike Series, a monthly day hiking program that raises money for the Trails Forever endowment. Each hike includes an educational component about Trails Forever, and some have included the opportunity to meet with the Trails Forever crew, see before and after photos of trails, and tour ongoing rehabilitation projects. Since the creation of the Classic Hike Series, over 450 people have been introduced to the national park’s trail system, and learned about the hard work carried out by Trails Forever to sustain it.
Thousands of hikers experience the impact of Trails Forever each year. Since 2008, three iconic Smokies hiking trails have been completely rehabilitated in two-year, two-part phases. The first was the 1.8-mile Forney Ridge Trail; the second was the 2-mile Chimney Tops Trail; and the third was the 5-mile Alum Cave Trail. Currently underway is a two-year overhaul of Rainbow Falls Trail.
The crewmembers restoring these iconic pathways use the same techniques to move, cut, and shape native stone and logs as did the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) who built the trails in the early 1900’s. The improvements are designed to last 75 years to make the trails safer and more enjoyable for millions of hikers for decades to come. While they are sustainable and durable, the staircases, footbridges, turnpikes, and drainage culverts built by the Trails Forever crew are designed to blend into the landscape in a natural way to keep with the national park’s historic wilderness character.
Recently, while Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s trails supervisor Tobias Miller was assessing a rock staircase on the Chimney Tops Trail built by the Trails Forever crew, he overheard a man encouraging his grandson to pay special attention to the stonework under his feet. He said, “Nobody knows how to do work like that anymore.” Thanks to Trails Forever, the people who do still know how to do that kind of work are providing a tremendous and lasting benefit for the Smokies trails.
Nine years in the making, Trails Forever continues to realize the original intent of the program: ‘All the trails in the Smokies, for all time.’
Prior to the establishment of the Trails Forever program there were only two trail work crews to take care of nearly 900 miles of hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Challenges of caring for trails in this national park include the abundant rainfall (varying from 55 to 85 inches annually, qualifying some areas as a temperate rainforest) and heavy usage (with over 11 million visitors annually coming to the Smokies) which contribute to erosion and trail damage.
So far, Trails Forever has totally renovated the Forney Ridge, Chimney Tops and Alum Cave Trails, providing safe and sustainable trails for generations to come. Currently, the Trails Forever crew is rehabilitating Rainbow Falls Trail, and expects completion in 2018. Each of these trails is high use and high priority. For example, Forney Ridge Trail begins at Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smokies known for its famous observation tower. Chimney Tops Trail’s short length and accessibility to the main park road make it a favorite destination. Alum Cave Trail is one of the most popular trails in the park, leading to iconic areas including Arch Rock, Inspiration Point, Alum Cave Bluffs, and Mt. Le Conte. During high visitation periods, the trail can see as many as a thousand hikers per day.
In addition to these total trail transformation projects, the Trails Forever crew has conducted maintenance and improvement operations on more than 30 additional hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The work improves overall trail safety and protects natural resources by improving the trail tread surface, reducing trail braiding, and improving drainage to prevent further erosion. Diverting social trails and removing larger tripping hazards also reduces the risk of hikers getting lost or injured, which can lead to difficult search and rescue operations. The result of Trails Forever’s work is a safer trail system that reduces visitor environmental impact.
The Trails Forever program is a unique and ideal partnership between philanthropy and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of America’s greatest natural treasures. The partnership started with a campaign in 2008 to mark the 75th anniversary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It began with a challenge to Friends of the Smokies from the Aslan Foundation to match a $2 million grant. This match would establish a $4 million endowment that would permanently fund a highly skilled trail maintenance crew. Friends of the Smokies and the National Park Service developed a Donor Recognition Plan to aid in fundraising for Trails Forever and other partnership projects, and Friends subsequently carried out a successful campaign. Now nine years later, the Trails Forever endowment is worth more than $5.7 million. Thus far, more than 1,400 donors from 38 states and 2 foreign countries have donated gifts of $10 to more than $250,000 to the Trails Forever endowment and projects.
The partnership continues to flourish. The National Park Service provides an annual budget for the proceeds of the endowment, as well as proposals, narratives, and images related to planning, implementation, and completion of Trails Forever rehabilitation projects. Friends of the Smokies’ Board of Directors maintains fiduciary responsibility for the endowment, and Friends continually fundraises for Trails Forever through appeals, grants, and events.
Friends of the Smokies and REI also maintain an ongoing partnership to support Trails Forever through REI’s grant program, which provides funding for tools and other trail crew needs. REI employees also participate in corporate stewardship workdays, and host in-store educational events to raise awareness for Trails Forever and the national park. This partnership began in 2011 and has continued for six years, amounting to $35,000 in support of Trails Forever projects.
Trails Forever successfully continues to contribute to the development of further partnerships between Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Friends of the Smokies, and other organizations, business, individuals, and communities. A close relationship between the Trails Forever crew and the American Conservation Experiences continually fuels the volunteer program, amounting to more than 65,000 hours of service by ACE’s young program participants.
Presentations and benefit nights at local restaurants, breweries, and retailers in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina connect the Trails Forever crew to national park visitors who directly benefit from their hard work. These smaller partnerships are essential to maintaining healthy relationships with gateway communities and reaching new audiences.