They're helping give railroads a second life.
Along the Missouri River, there are 26 rambling trails where you can walk or bike through soft marshlands, towering bluffs, pleasing pastures, and thick forests.
Those trails make up the Katy Trail State Park — the longest public area in the United States that was formerly train tracks.
Built on the corridor of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, there's also quite a bit of history to be found on any outdoor excursion in this state park. Most trails go past restored historic depots and former railroad towns. It's no surprise all 240 miles of this park were added to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Hall of Fame in 2008.
But trails like this weren't always so pleasant.
In the 1950s and '60s, there was dramatic decline in train use. By 1966, less than 2% of intercity commuters were using trains to get from place to place. That left a significant number of train lines defunct and a whole lot of miles of territory in disuse.
Aside from not looking too pretty, these rail lines, including what's now Katy Trail State Park, were just taking up unnecessary amounts of space without serving any purpose.
By the 1980s, "you see Congress starting to get concerned, because they were looking at the permanent loss of these rail lines," explains Amy Kapp, editor of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s magazine and blog.
So they amended the National Trail Systems Act to create the Railbanking Program. This allows people to preserve inactive corridors for future rail use while providing interim trail use — aka turning them into walking trails and bike paths.
But it’s often not easy for communities to launch large-scale trail projects on their own. They don't have the money and manpower, or they simply do not have any idea where to start.
That's why David Burwell and Peter Harnik founded the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy — an organization that's been helping to create outdoor paths for the public since 1986.
By helping convert old railways into public lands like the awesome Katy Trails, the conservancy is giving back to local communities by providing more places to go outside, which in turn may help people feel better physically and mentally. More walkable, bike-able trails also means there's more of America's natural beauty for people to enjoy.
Over the last 30 years, RTC has been a great success.
When they opened their doors, there were 250 miles of known rail-trail. Today, there are over 22,774 miles available to communities all over the country and 2,035 known rails have been converted to trails.
It's really quite remarkable when you realize all those trails were once just miles and miles of unused land.
David Burwell passed away in February, but thanks to his passion and skill — and over 160,000 RTC members — his work will live on long after him.
Currently, RTC is helping to build eight large-scale regional trail systems across the United States.
One particularly significant project is called the Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Transportation and Tourism Plan, or Active Plan for short.
The Active Plan is based in Cameron County, Texas, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. A 428-mile trail network is on the docket to provide locals with safe travel routes and encourage exercise and outdoor recreation.
These outdoor trails could make life so much better for locals.
Being closer to trails could save Cameron County millions of dollars in medical bills.
The community's economy should see a huge uptick too. A plan is set to create 453 new jobs for locals and increase tourism revenue by $40 million. For a county with more than a third of its residents below the poverty line, that’s no inconsequential figure.
Rails-to-trails conversion starts on the community level — which means that there are lots of ways for people to get involved and maybe even help spearhead a project in their own community.
In fact, RTC's website is a great resource if anyone interested in jumpstarting more trails, providing an online toolbox that's filled with information on railbanking, acquiring and financing projects, planning and trail designs, and how to navigate the railroad and community guidelines.
In addition, RTC is also always looking for volunteers to help advocate for them and their work. After all, it is thanks to those volunteers that we have beautiful public trails weaving through different communities, linking them together, and bringing people back to nature — they are the ones helping make Burwell's dream a reality.
"My dream is that one day you could go across this entire country — old or young, handicapped or able — on flat, wide, off-road paths," he once told the RTC publication. "I want rail-trails to be America’s main street."