In response, Chris Perkins, a vice president with the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, says that he is “seeing communities of all sizes [that] have all sorts of political backgrounds and demographics around the country invest in outdoor recreation, infrastructure and access like never before.” Yet as more recreation has attracted new residents, cost of living has soared in many towns.
“Tourism is incredible but it doesn’t pay a whole lot, frankly,” Crews notes. He argues that regions have seen success in attracting higher-paying jobs when they diversify beyond tourism, lure outdoor businesses and develop expertise in a specific part of the industry.
Not relying solely on tourism, he says, is vital because “we don’t want to see every town become a ski town where the people that grew up there can’t live there anymore because they can’t afford it.”
Earlier this year, Outdoor Recreation Roundtable released a second version of its rural economic development toolkit. Notably, it included a section devoted to addressing housing issues, what Perkins describes as “the challenge.” But there are other barriers too: Funding for infrastructure, getting community buy-in, varied land ownership and the time it takes to plan new trails.
Working with different parts of communities early on is critical, says Claire Polfus, the recreation programs manager for the state of Vermont. Even successful recreation projects bring change, and “there’s people who win and people who lose out of any change that happens,” she says.
For example, Kingdom Trails, a network of trails spanning more than 100 miles based in East Burke, Vermont, has achieved its goals and more, Polfus says. But it has also hit roadblocks ranging from issues over land ownership to the rising cost of living in the areas surrounding the trails.
She says it’s important to engage first with communities and ask, “What do we want to be?”
In some cases, what a community wants and needs can shift due to circumstances beyond its control.
In 2020 and 2021, the North Complex Fire, the Dixie Fire and the Beckwourth Complex burned through more than one million acres in the Lost Sierra, devastating forests and many of the rural towns at the center of the Lost Sierra Route. The mountains that tower over the region drain into the upper Feather River watershed, which has seen more than half its acreage burn since 2017. The Dixie Fire in 2021 left downtown Greenville decimated, reducing historic buildings to rubble.
Even before the fires, Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship worked to solicit feedback and build wide support from a wide range of local politicians, government agencies and business organizations.
Stirling says people are mostly “in alignment” with the idea of building additional trails.
But, she acknowledges, “our region’s catastrophic wildfires reprioritized everyone’s community needs and everyone’s personal interest. We’re still walking this path for connected communities, but also recognizing that yes, trails are not at the top of everyone’s Christmas wish list.”
“Homes and rebuilding communities are there as well,” she adds.
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Trails can take years to build out, and the Connected Communities project is years from its full completion. That has provided opportunities to rethink the trails in response to feedback — and fires. Williams, the executive director, says fire “changed the look and feel of the landscape, but also how we look at trails.” The organization plans to look at managing vegetation in the 100-foot corridor around trails to help prevent the spread of future fires. New trails, he says, can also play a role in rebuilding Greenville, a town that was just hanging on, even before the fires.
“Recreation is key to their future,” he says of the Lost Sierra Communities. “A lot of the people who live there live there because of the access to public lands, whether they walk, ride a horse, ride a motorcycle or hop in a jeep and go. That’s super important to their lifestyle and well-being. So this project fits right in line.”