July 25, 2019 by Jennifer Peterson



Situated near the mouth of Glacier National Park and at the base of a major ski resort, Whitefish, Montana, didn’t exactly need a trail system to put it on the outdoor recreation map. But Whitefish Trail, a 45-mile system of singletrack and logging roads developed around Whitefish Lake on state trust land surrounding the town, has proven itself a significant economic generator for both the community of Whitefish and the state of Montana.

Its story is a microcosm of virtually every trail in the country, from the ever-popular thoroughfares such as the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails — both of which were born from the National Trails Systems Act of 1968 — to the unassuming paths through urban areas, waterways and routes built from abandoned railways and canals.


The master plan for the Whitefish Trail, which will reach 55 miles in the next five years, was formulated in 2006 after locals who had long-since enjoyed the area on unofficial trails became concerned that the land might be developed. After a Herculean effort by numerous community members to build partnerships and come up with funding, construction of the Whitefish Trail began in 2010. Now that it’s nearly complete, the trail has ratcheted up a total bill — including the price of land swaps, easements, building and maintenance of around $32 million.

It might sound like a gargantuan sum, but the trail is showing a rapid return on that investment, generating an estimated $6.4 million per year.

If You Build It, They Will Stay…And Spend

“The trail has served that role to not only give people something to do in town, but also to take pressure off that Glacier Park resource that’s getting overrun every single year,” says Alan Myers-Davis, development director of the trail’s governing organization, Whitefish Legacy Partners. In 2017, Glacier National Park, which is about 25 miles from Whitefish, saw record visitation when 3.3 million people stepped foot through its gates.

“If you go to [Glacier], you usually go for a long hike, and you’re gone from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” adds Whitefish Legacy Partners Executive Director Heidi Van Everen. “But here, if you want to get out and enjoy the lake and be on the trail for a couple of hours or for a half day, you can do that and still go downtown, go shopping, go out for lunch, go out for dinner. It’s a huge economic driver for the community because it allows people to stay in Whitefish for the day and enjoy outdoor recreation.”

“I think it’s safe to say that trail systems, when they attract visitors from out of town, do bring economic benefits, whether that’s snowmobiling, cross country skiing, mountain biking, hiking,” says Headwaters Economics’ Megan Lawson. “If it’s big enough to draw people to the area, then it’s going to bring benefits. The obvious beneficiaries of tourism and recreation are the bike shops, gear shops, hotels and restaurants, but then it trickles down throughout the economy, not just those tourism-oriented businesses. It ripples through the whole community.”


Aside from the direct spending by those who use them, trails often serve as beacons that draw new companies and employees to the area. This is true in Whitefish, where the estimated 68 jobs stemming from the Whitefish Trail don’t account for business development indirectly generated by the trail.

“It’s not counting the person who gets interviewed by a local company and who wants to move here because of the trail. Just anecdotally, we hear from local businesses that it’s a pretty important piece of the puzzle,” Myers-Davis says. “It’s an incredible tool to attract new employees. A lot of businesses, part of their interview process is going for a quick mountain bike ride or getting out on the trail for a walk. Because the trailheads are right on our doorstep, it provides [prospective employees] that glimpse into that amenity we have, but also that recreation-based quality of life we have in Whitefish.”

According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2018 Outdoor Participation Report, the annual number of people hitting the trail has skyrocketed by almost 50 percent, going from 30 million per year in 2006 to 44.9 million in 2017. On the Pacific Trail alone, a total of 7,313 PCT permits were issued in 2018 compared to just 1,879 in 2013, according to The Pacific Crest Trail Association.

Outdoor Recreation, Elevated

Given that most Americans live in or near cities, they don’t have immediate access — or often the means to access — rugged, scenic trails like the PCT or those in popular destinations such as Whitefish.

Luckily, trails have their urban incarnations, too. Some of the most beloved, well-used trails are the ones built in the middle of major metropolitan areas, such as Chicago’s 606 or New York City’s High Line, both of which made use of abandoned, elevated rail lines that stretch through several miles of the city and which have become hot spots for residents and visitors alike.

“I think we’re at 80-plus percent of the U.S. population living in urban or suburban areas, and we know that roughly two-thirds of all outdoor recreation occurs close to home, so that really underscores the importance of places like The High Line and the 606,” says Outdoor Industry Association State and Local Policy Director David Weinstein. “You look at this beautiful trail —  it’s above ground, it connects all sorts of communities — these are huge success stories that speak to revitalization of lighted areas and cities and get underserved people, specifically children, more connected with outdoor activities.”

The High Line cost around $153 million to build. By 2011 — two years after the first section was completed — it had already accounted for $2 billion in new developments, including residences, hotels and art galleries, according to The New York Times. By 2014, according to Friends of the High Line, the trail had already hosted more than 20 million visitors.

Unlike sports programs, gyms and personal trainers, trails through urban areas are a public recreation amenity that can be accessed by a broader swath of people with a wider range of fitness levels, comfort zones and financial means.

“One of the great things about hiking is the threshold for being a part of it isn’t so high. You just need a pair of sneakers and a local trail,” says Kate Van Waes, president of American Hiking Society. “One of my favorites — it runs right through Silver Spring [Maryland] — and has a lot of people on it all the time. It’s paved, mostly flat, but you’re in the trees, you can see the deer … it’s a wonderful experience. Some people will say, ‘I’m a walker, I’m not really a hiker.’ But when you’re walking on a trail, it’s the same thing. Those local trails are gateway drugs of the [scenic] trail systems. Those local experiences get people hooked. It calms your mind. It calms anxieties. It releases stress just to hear water flowing, leaves rustling in the wind. That connection to nature is really primal for us and really necessary.”

A Valuable Instrument of Behavior Change

Although not all of these urban neighborhood trails are tourist destinations, they still deliver economic benefits to users and communities. For commuters who use them to get to work or local services, they can bring transportation-cost savings, plus the difficult-to-quantify public health benefits.

Similarly, as part of Headwaters Economics’ Whitefish Trail economic impact study, when local trail users were surveyed about the Whitefish Trail, more than half said they exercised more since the trail was built. When asked what their favorite aspect of the trail was, the most common answer was its proximity to town. In the long run, public health benefits are also economic benefits.

“We are showing that when a trail is built, people change their habits. They are walking more every day, every week, the return on investment is better health,” Lawson points out. “There was an interesting study in southeast Missouri. They built walking trails and watched what happened. They found the folks who were using the trails the most were elderly folks, single people and the lowest-income populations. These were people public health outreach folks were having a hard time reaching … We’re seeing the biggest improvement come among these more vulnerable populations.” Lawson adds that, while bigger trail networks attract tourism and have the capability to spawn outdoor recreation destinations, even small community paths and trails can significantly improve the lives of the people who live there.”

The Whitefish Trail has provided a healthy lifestyle boost and economic growth for the people of Whitefish, and the community has taken full ownership of its upkeep.

Of The People, For The People, By The People

“When we started the Whitefish Trail, the goal really was to make sure that people understood the value of conservation on the land around our community,” Van Everen says. “We wanted to make sure this trail system was designed to support the local community and have their interest and buy-in on what we create. We figured it would turn into an amenity for the tourists, but we wanted to make sure the locals really felt that ownership of it. That’s an important piece, that people feel it is their trail system. They help to maintain it, they are the first ones enjoying it in the spring time when the snow starts to melt.”

Who Foots The Bill?

It is true that most trails don’t come cheap, as evidenced by the $32 million — and counting — price tag of a relatively small system like the Whitefish Trail.

Funding is the greatest obstacle faced by trails. One way to mitigate costs is to build trails that make use of existing infrastructure. A fine example is the Great American Rail Trail, which, when completed over the next two decades, will measure nearly 4,000 miles and connect former, unused rail lines and multiuse trails from Washington D.C. to Washington state and will be within 50 miles of 50 million people’s homes. As of June 2019, it is 52 percent complete.

Today’s Cost Savings Brought To You By “Adaptive Reuse”

“The beauty of a rail trail is that you’re doing what in today’s lingo is, effectively, adaptive reuse, or, as we used to say back in the day, recycling the railroad,” says Liz Thorstensen, Vice President of Trail Development with the Rails to Trail Conservancy (RTC), which helps preserve and convert unused rail lines into multi-use trails and oversees the development of the Great American Rail Trail. “Especially in a world that’s urbanizing more and more, you’re making the most of every little bit available to you. It’s really about creative use of rights of way.”

The Great American Rail Trail has involved the work of more than 200 local partners and more than 50 state agencies, working together to secure public funding on the federal, state and local levels, much of which is available as a direct result of the 1968 National Trail Systems Act. This type of funding is vital to the survival and prosperity of every type of trail system.

“The National Trail System Act was extremely seminal in this movement and really enabled trail systems to be part of the American experience and lexicon,” Thorstensen says.“What we’ve seen since then is that there are these other vehicles that we spend a lot of energy making sure succeed; one is the Transportation Alternatives Program. It’s really the largest single source of dedicated funding for walking and biking trails in the country and it’s been in existence for nearly three decades. There’s been several cuts and changes, but we and a lot of our partners are focused on keeping that program growing so that there is more of that critical public investment made available, not just for the Great American Rail Trail but for trail networks all across the country. We want to make sure that whenever funding for roads and highways grows that funding for walking and biking trails also sees growth.”

The Transportation Alternatives Program, now called Surface Transportation Block Grant, is funded by the federal government in an effort to expand travel options in American communities, improving their quality of life and preserving natural areas.

There are already studies showing impressive ROI for segments of the Great American Rail Trail. Last year, the RTC and its partners conducted a study on The Towpath Trail, an 87-mile segment along the Erie Canal in northeast Ohio that is also part of the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition, which will eventually be a 1,500-mile mega trail stretching through America’s “rust belt” all the way to Pittsburgh.

“What we found on average — and we use very conservative numbers — we found the Towpath [is generating] $7 million a year in direct trail-user spending. When we say direct, we’re looking at spending on hard goods, soft goods — bikes, clothing, food, lodging — that direct experience the days you’re on the trail,” Thorstensen said.

Thorstensen references another study conducted on a section of the Great American Rail Trail in Miami Valley, Ohio, that shows an economic impact of $13 million annually as well as another from one of the route’s “gateway” trails – the Cardinal Greenway system in Indiana – in which it was estimated that each trail user was spending an average of $4,500 per year.

“One of our goals for the Great American Rail Trail is that it absolutely serves as an economic development and tourism vehicle, especially for the more remote places along the route,” Thorstensen says. “That said, those numbers [above] are for metropolitan regions. Even in metropolitan regions that might be drawing some tourists, those are numbers generated by people living there. It goes both ways. In urban places, you can show those trails really have a local economic development impact, but as you get into some of the more remote parts of the country, our goal of working with partners all across those places is to maximize those opportunities for local economic development.”

So you see, trails of all varieties are not just those places we go to feel free and to enjoy the outdoors. They deliver economic growth to their communities as well as individual peace of mind and health benefits. How can you help to secure the future of your favorite trails? In addition to being model trail stewards, volunteering for trail building projects and supporting funding initiatives, trail users and advocates, including and especially local outdoor recreation businesses, can support outdoor recreation offices or look into what it takes to build a trail in your community in this Webinar or by checking out the RTC trail-building toolbox.



Key economic benefits to trails