Billings team went to a TrailNation Summit and learned from Rails To Trails Conservancy

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The recent Trail Nation Summit in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, brought together trail advocates, planners and other interested parties from around the country.

The Billings participants were: Melissa Henderson of Healthy By Design; Dianne Lehm of Big Sky Economic Development; Kristi Drake, executive director of Billings TrailNet; and Monica Plecker of the City County Planning Department.

“We had eight teams from around the country, and among other things we were learning the best practices in trail development. We also teamed up with a group from Colorado Springs,” said Drake.

Ales for Trails, Billings TrailNet’s main fundraiser, has raised more than $500,000 for trail development over the past few years. That’s a significant amount of money, but it pays for only a fraction of the millions of dollars in improvements that are needed to complete a comprehensive trail system for Billings, Drake said.

After attending the Milwaukee summit and conversing with trail advocates from Colorado Springs, Drake said it might be time to update Billings TrailNet’s role in trail development. “We’ve been a fundraising organization first and advocacy organization second,” Drake observed. “My takeaway is that we should continue fundraising but also advocate for some public dollars to be directed toward trails and bikeways,” she added.

The recent Park Master Plan conducted for the City Parks and Recreation Department indicates that many Billings residents see a need for additional walking and biking trails, yet the department has no budget for trail development.

“Granted, the parks department has a limited budget. But it’s our job to advocate for trails and our job to put trail development in the public’s eye,” Drake said.

Unless a new source of funding is put in place, Billings trails will likely be developed over several decades rather than in a timely manner that keeps up with current demand and residential development.

Billings TrailNet will continue to celebrate successes in trail development and will capitalize on enthusiasm from the many allies in the community advocating for trail development. Many of Billings’ elected leaders, its government services, economic and business authorities, colleges and health departments, all see the economic, social and health benefits of a trail system.

“We want to inspire everyone in our community to share this vision of our connected trail system,” Drake said.