Compass: Trail volunteers boost ways to wildnerness and economy

Alaska's world-class trails are a great way to relax, to get the family together, to build community and to promote a healthy lifestyle. National Trails Day is today, June 1, and it is the perfect day to celebrate the amazing trails that Alaska enjoys. It is a day to give back to these trails, to help clean-up and maintain these important connectors in our lives. It is also a day to reflect on the value of trails, not simply their recreational value, but also their role in our economy.

According to a recent report by the Outdoor Industry Association: Outdoor recreation within Alaska generates $9.5 billion in consumer spending, 92,000 direct Alaska jobs, $2.6 billion in wages and salaries and $711 million in state and local tax revenue. It also indicates that 81 percent of Alaska residents participate in outdoor recreation each year.

Trails are key to that economic activity -- and to the enjoyment and health benefits that accrue from it.

And it's not just Alaskans who are hitting the trails. The 2011 Alaska Visitor Statistics Program survey showed that 38 percent of all visitors coming to Alaska participated in hiking. Another 5 percent rode both ATVs and bicycles. It's clear that many tourists come to Alaska for trails and that they will extend their stay, return again and speak highly of Alaska when they find well-designed and maintained trails.

For 10 years, Alaska Trails has been working to enhance and maintain trails across Alaska. Sustainable trails enable all types of users to access and enjoy public lands while not compromising the integrity and beauty that makes the land so unique. Alaska Trails has partnered with trails groups and businesses across the state -- from the Ester Dome mountain bike trails in Fairbanks to the Kachemak Bay Water Trail across the bay from Homer. In Anchorage, Alaska Trails has worked with the Singletrack Advocates and many other groups and individuals to help build the popular mountain bike trails on the Hillside and at Kincaid.

Alaska Trails has two mobile tool trailers -- in Fairbanks and Anchorage -- that we lend to projects to make sure the volunteer muscle for projects has the right tools to be safe and effective. Last summer, the trailer was used by an Eagle Scout candidate to maintain a section of the historic Iditarod Trail in Girdwood. Giving people, especially young people, the tools to enjoy and take responsibility for their trails is a true benefit to our community. A volunteer who builds or maintains a trail one year, will be back to help keep that trail healthy in the future.

As government funding shrinks, harnessing volunteer energy will be critical. In each of the last two field seasons, the Alaska Trails' tool trailers have generated over 4,000 volunteer labor hours. That's nearly $100,000 of volunteer labor generated by having the right tools in the right place at the right time. The Alaska Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan also calls for tapping volunteers and highlights their value: "In FY2008, 474 Alaska State Park volunteers donated 66,394 hours of labor. The Financial Accounting Standards Board said the hours of labor donated equal a dollar value of $1.3 million."

At a recent Anchorage Parks and Recreation commission meeting, supporter after supporter stood up to highlight the value of trails. From nine-year old participants in Mighty Bikes to their teenage coaches, from beginners to old-timers -- people love trails. Their testimony spurred unanimous support for six more miles of mountain bike trails in Kincaid Park that will be built by the Singletrack Advocates this fall.

That's what National Trails Day is all about -- showing your love for trails. In Alaska, and across the nation, volunteers from businesses, church groups, nonprofits and service groups will join together to help enhance, restore and celebrate trails. Alaska Trails' volunteers will be teaming up with SAGA and Alaska State Parks to work on the Indian Valley Trail. Please join us from 9 a.m. -- 1 p.m. See you on the trails.

Steve Cleary is executive director of Alaska Trails,