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By Lucy Higgins • May 16, 2023

Last week, we caught up with Mike Passo, Executive Director at American Trails, to hear his recap on the International Trails Summit. The event, which is designed to bring together “trail and greenway advocates, managers, planners and users” took place in Reno from April 17 – 20 and included 130 informational sessions, representing 20 countries and 47 states. And with 900 attendees, it marked the largest Summit to date, thanks in part to American Trails combining hosting forces with the Professional TrailBuilders Association this year for the first time. In this two-part series, we’ll hear from Passo on his greatest takeaways from the 2023 Summit, trails’ impact on rural development, and more. —Lucy Higgins

Lucy Higgins: What were some of the themes that emerged this year at the Trails Summit? 

Mike Passo: This year was 50 percent larger than most of our conferences. and by far the most successful conference we’ve had. I think people were just chomping at the bit to get back in touch with people, and the world has changed so much that there was just tons to talk about in terms of how we approach trails and how important trails are to rural development, beyond tourism. For me, that was one of the most important themes that emerged. 

Trails are infrastructure to communities, and trails solve a lot of the problems of communities, more than just bringing new people into a community beyond tourism. [Tourism] can be important, but it can also be a detriment to a lot of communities. So there were a lot of sessions about how trails create active, healthy lifestyles for communities and retain youth and create vibrant communities more so than any other investment can. You can invest in hospitals and medical centers and rec centers and multi million dollar projects, but trails can have a lot of impact for a lot less money in many cases. They retain and draw highly educated talent to communities and they diversify the tax base.

There were a lot of sessions about how trails create active, healthy lifestyles for communities and retain youth and create vibrant communities more so than any other investment can.

– Mike Passo, American Trails

We talk about the economic impact of trails over and over, and I think people just glaze over when you talk about it now. It doesn’t have an impact with legislators, but the stories are what move funding and move legislators, and I think those came out really strongly in this summit. 

Then there’s been a lot of talk about planning, and planning isn’t sexy. It doesn’t put shovels on the ground. But the projects that fail are almost always because they didn’t plan. They didn’t spend 70 percent of their time planning and talking to people in the community—those projects blow up. All of a sudden people are like, what about crime, what about trash and littering, and the infrastructure of our town with all of this tourism? Is it going to gentrify our community and price us out? All of these things need to be addressed before you can even think about putting a shovel into the dirt. I think that really came through as a theme to the conference. 

Participants in a conference session. The range of topics at the conference was broad.
Photo Courtesy American Trails

LH: I’m out in Vermont, and I was just chatting with Angus [McKusker] about Velomont. It was cool to catch up and hear about the planning process, especially doing so in Vermont and managing private, state, federal, and all of these stakeholders. It’s pretty fascinating, and to your point of the planning phase, that’s everything. If you don’t have a clear plan there’s so many moving parts that it’s almost impossible to move forward. 

MP: I couldn’t agree more. When I say planning, I think the key part to that is public outreach. Say you got funding for a mountain bike trail and you’re in the planning process—even if that trail can’t include other user groups, the other user groups need to be reached out to and asked to support that plan. That often involves conversations like, “OK, we’ll support this mountain bike trail this time, but you gotta support us when we ask for our motorized trail.” There are many ways that we can have planning processes and meetings that include all the user groups. It’s generally understood that trails, no matter who the user groups are, are better for the community. I think that can be all of the difference between a successful project and a project that creates bad blood within a community. 

LH: Tell me more about the turnout, you mentioned it was huge. Could you give me a rundown of some folks who maybe you weren’t expecting to see, or some highlights of who attended? 

MP: We had a huge contingency from Hawaii, and we had a huge number of international folks, more than we’ve had by a long shot. And more programming that was across the borders pretty effectively. In terms of the people who attend the conference, it’s about 60% agency people, whether they be federal, state, or local. We had a lot of local folks this time. More than ever, cities are getting the aha moment that we need to get trails into our community, so they’re coming to the conference to figure out how to do that and do it effectively.

This was a joint conference with the Professional TrailBuilders Association; they usually have a smaller conference every year. This year and in 2025 we’re doing joint conferences again, and what’s really exciting about that is generally American Trails has been the higher level–the planners and the developers, but this brought a greater spectrum to the offerings. It covered everything from a federal-level discussion on the 10-year trail challenge and what’s happening on the national or international level down [learning about] the degree of the turn radius. So it was just really fun to see that huge spectrum and to have the field people talking and interacting with the mayor of Dayton, Ohio [for example]. 

It creates these conversations that haven’t happened before very effectively. The actual construction of the plan needs a reality check with the planners, and the landscape architects. There’s always little push and pull between landscape architects and people who build trails. Having those interactions is critical and builds upon both sides. 

This is the first half of our interview with Mike. Click here for part 2.