Compass: Trail money pays off in more ways than one

Trails are vital to Alaska. In addition to providing recreational opportunities across the state, trails are a benefit to local economies and public health. They also provide access to hunting and fishing areas. As winter sets in, trails transform from summer fun to skiing, snowmachining, dog-sledding and snowshoeing avenues to escape cabin fever and to provide access between villages in bush Alaska.

That's why Alaska Trails is so excited about the Governor's recently released budget. The governor's capital budget includes money for maintenance in State Parks across the state - from Southeast to Kodiak, Kenai and the interior. In addition, the budget includes $200,000 for the Recreational Trails Program (RTP). This wise investment will allow the state to continue this popular program and access millions of dollars of federal money for trails in Alaska.

The RTP provides funds to the states to develop and maintain recreational trails and trail-related facilities for motorized and non-motorized uses and public access. Since 1993, the State of Alaska has received over $12.5 million for trails through this program. This money has funded State Parks trail crews and helped non-profits and community trail groups across the state with their local projects. RTP money is used not only to build and maintain trails, but also to acquire land, to install signage, to purchase equipment, to teach safety and educate youth, and to acquire trail easements for access.

From the Eska West ATV Trail to the Treadwell Ditch Trail Restoration project, from purchasing trail maintenance equipment in Bethel for the Kuskokwim 300 to avalanche safety courses and statewide conferences - RTP does it all. State Park trail crews and small communities across Alaska rely on this program. Trails are important community builders - helping combat obesity, getting families active together, serving as employment opportunities and promoting land stewardship.

Trails and the communities surrounding them receive economic benefits from their proximity to trails. The Outdoor Industry Association reports that 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. That's big money for Alaska, and it's growing.

According to the State Department of Health, Alaskans spend $459 million a year treating the effects of obesity. Almost 40 percent of adults and 30 percent of kids in Alaska are obese. Taken together, Alaskans who are overweight and obese account for 65 percent of the population. For children, it's not only bad for their health, but also negatively affects their academic performance.

Trails are part of the solution as they offer a year-round source of activity, often right near your home, school or workplace. Whether on feet, bikes, scooters, skis, snowshoes or wheels - trails give kids and families a place to exercise and enjoy Alaska.

Gov. Parnell's investment in trails is a great start to 2014. In April, Alaska Trails' 2014 Statewide Trails conference will continue the conversation by addressing the health and economic benefits of trails as well as hosting instructors highlighting the latest in sustainable trail design. This will lead to a summer season of trail building and maintenance, with trail users of all ages and all methods of travel enjoying their trail adventures. Alaska's world class trail system is truly an asset for Alaska.

Steve Cleary is executive director of Alaska Trails,