Drawing the Distinction Between Trail Organizations

Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance (Michigan Trails) has evolved over the years. Though this evolution, we often encounter confusion from our members about the distinction between Michigan Trails and Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC) when planning charitable giving with either or both organizations.

Michigan Trails was founded first in 1986 as the Michigan TRRails Alliance (the double R was a play on words for “railroad”) and focused strictly on multi-use rail-trails from abandoned rail corridors.  Meanwhile, the RTC was just getting established, and invited us to join forces as they too realized the potential of adding rail-trail miles in Michigan.  We joined RTC in 1988 as their Michigan Chapter and gained valuable experience in the areas of fundraising, policy, and how to build rail-trails.  During our 18 years with RTC, We helped initiate many rail-trail projects, forming friends of the trail groups, advocating, and providing know-how to make these trails happen. During this time, the state passed its own Michigan Trailways Act.  Over 1,500 miles of trails came together during this opportunistic time of rapid rail abandonment.  Nationally, RTC was at the helm of shaping and advocating for a major source of non-motorized trail funding within the Federal Surface Transportation Act – the ISTEA program. Since its inception, RTC has remained strong and Michigan Trails has worked in concert with them to rally help when needed. This and the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund are the two major sources of funding for non-motorized trails in our state.

In 2005, RTC had decided to regionalize its field offices, and the Michigan Field Office determined the best way to continue to assist Michigan’s trail projects would be to form its own statewide nonprofit. Michigan Trails was reborn and began assisting with key rail-trail projects and with communities wishing to extend their trails through the use of other linear facilities for connections such as utility corridors, road rights of way, public land, and other linear resources to grow trail networks.

In 2006, Michigan Trails started the Connecting Michigan: A Statewide Trails Vision and Action Plan to identify the issues standing in the way of a fully developed interconnected statewide trail network.  Ten task forces studied the critical barriers: trailway funding for acquisition, development, and maintenance; property acquisition and easement issues; trails promotion and mapping; trails programming to encourage use; on-road non-motorized connections to close the gaps; building trail support through education and advocacy, gaining regional collaboration to advance trail efforts; coordinating statewide resources for funding, planning and design; multi-use trail design guidelines, and formalizing the statewide trailways network.  The deliberation and endorsement of some 200 partners that collaborated on this plan laid the groundwork for Michigan Trails to be recognized for advocacy and trails leadership in the state.  Over the years the work on these cross-state trails, our advocacy on complete streets initiatives to fill in non-motorized trail networks, partnering with Michigan tourism officials to make our trails much more user-friendly and accessible, and collaborating with other non-motorized trails groups to build a unified voice for the good of the whole system has all resulted from our Connecting Michigan: A Statewide Trails Vision and Action Plan.

In 2010, in part because of our recognition for this work, we became affiliated with the Michigan Fitness Foundation and the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness, Health and Sports. We have grown into an advanced trail network, boasting well over 3,000 miles of multi-use trails. Because Michigan is #1 for rail trail miles in the nation, we have seized the opportunity to create a cross-state interconnected system.  Our work on the ground has enabled two notable cross-state trail initiatives; the Great Lake to Lake Trail from South Haven to Port Huron and the Iron Belle Trail from Belle Isle to Ironwood.

On any given day of the week we may be “deep in the forest” working on individual or regional trail issues or you can find us soaring above at the statewide level, facilitating cross-state routes, working on trails policy initiatives for funding, promotion, and stewardship or presenting our trails expertise at conferences and workshops across the state-most recently at the Mid America Trails and Greenways ConferenceInternational Trails Symposium and mParks Trail Summit.

RTC continues to be our national partner in advocacy for federal policy and in groundbreaking research across the country. Michigan Trails values this work, stands side by side in advocacy, and gratefully uses these new information resources for future trail development in our state.

Both organizations are doing important work that help to keep your trail system growing and improving. The substance of the work done is equally as crucial.  The main difference is charitable giving towards Rails-to-Trails Conservancy go to support work done at the national level, while charitable giving through membership and donations to Michigan Trails stay to support trail work in Michigan.

We thank you for your continued support of Michigan’s trail system. Because of your generosity, we are able to further our mission as the statewide voice for non-motorized trail users, helping people build, connect and promote trails for a healthier and more prosperous Michigan.