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Front Page » June 3, 2008 » Opinion » Guest editorial: the American treasure of trail heritage
Published 2,680 days ago

Guest editorial: the American treasure of trail heritage

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Former secretary of the interior

Today, on the 40th anniversary of the National Trails System Act, you will find me looking out on a footpath that leads past my house into the mountains, thinking about the age-old pull of America's historic trails.

When I was a boy growing up on a ranch, trails formed the contours of my world. Trails were the most practical way of getting around, whether going to the closest neighbor or rounding up stray cattle. Sometimes, I'd walk a trail just to see where it led.

National historic trails have become paths into the heart of our history. June 7 is designated as National Trails Day to bring attention to this rich heritage, much of which would have passed into oblivion, been ploughed under or paved over, were it not for the National Trails legislation signed into law by President Johnson in 1968.

One of the ideas behind this legislative act was to ensure the survival of our historic corridors. Those of us who endorsed the legislation wanted to make it possible for Americans to share some of the adventure, the toil and even a bit of the danger experienced by our forebears - the native people, explorers and pioneers who first laid eyes on what became the American landscape.

Today, the National Trails System encompasses more than 40,000 miles of trails, including one of the most recently designated, Old Spanish National Historic Trail. At 2,700 miles, the Old Spanish Trail was pivotal to America's expansion west from Santa Fe to the Pacific coast.

In 1829, Mexican trader Antonio Armijo forged what became the first contiguous commercial route between the Santa Fe region and Los Angeles. Such legendary figures as Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson and John C. Frémont, were also successful in retracing what had been a series of ancient, interlacing Native American trading routes. By doing so, these frontiersmen played a crucial role in connecting our country's interior to coastal California and international trade.

Of the 25 historic and scenic trails designated by U.S. Congress, The Old Spanish Trail may be the longest, most crooked and arduous pack mule trail in the history of the U.S. As many as 2,000 animals at a time might be driven the full length of its narrow, parched, rugged path. These days, one can almost trace where its corridor touches on the Santa Fe Trail to the east and El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro to the South. It even crosses the Continental Divide Trail upon the Colorado Plateau and the Pacific Crest Trail to the West. An important portion of the northern-most branch is also known as the "Mormon Road".

With the exception of certain subsections used by Mormon settlers and other travelers, by 1848 the Old Spanish Trail's role as a major trade and emigration route had largely been superseded by less formidable trails. But remnants of the history and culture that survived in its wake are still to be found along a breathtaking route that starts in Santa Fe, heading west by three different routes. Its "North Branch" winds through the Pueblo of Taos Indian Reservation and snakes between the Santa Fe and San Juan National Forests, then skirting the Great Sand Dunes National Park as it passes through the Lands Of Paiute People before passing through Grand Junction and Utah. From that point travelers can follow U.S. Hwy 50 just north of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, crossing the Green River and into Castle Dale. Further west will take you past the Manti-La Sal, Fishlake and Dixie National Forests and down through Enoch on the way to Mesquite, Nev.

Unfortunately, the National Trails System Act did not include a budget for documenting all the trails or preserving their historic environs. Rather, these trails have relied heavily on the contributions and hard work of volunteers. In 2007 alone, volunteers have put in almost 750,000 hours building, maintaining and protecting trails. Volunteers also work closely with the various agencies of the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture to document high potential sites and trail segments, preserve artifacts, and promote public appreciation through interpretive programs and the development of exhibitions and educational materials.

Since 1993, Congress has appropriated some funds to help complete work on the trails, but there is so much more left to accomplish. The future of our trail system will continue to depend on the generosity of private land owners as well as the continuing efforts of volunteers. A new generation of volunteers and trail association members must be recruited to reinvigorate this monumental effort.

Supporting your local trail-The Old Spanish National Historic Trail-is more than an exercise in nostalgia. Trails offer interactive educational opportunities for all generations, including today's youth. Getting involved, means playing your part in a genuine "reality show" that should perhaps be called, "The American Legacy".

In the diaries of the people who forged our frontier, you can read the first drafts of American history. In the crude inscriptions and epitaphs scrawled on rocks and grave markers along the trail, you can see the evidence of their toil and hard won achievements.

A national trail is indeed a portal to the past. But it is also an inroad to our national character. It tells us how we got where we are as well as prepares us for the next stage in history. Our trails are both irresistible and indispensable. It is up to all of us who care so deeply for the future of this great country to join in this uniquely American undertaking of appreciating and protecting our treasure of trails. I hope you will join me, for the sake of the generations to come that they might treasure our natural and historical landscape, too.

For more information on National Historic Trails:

Stewart Udall represented Arizona in the U.S. House from 1953 until President John F. Kennedy appointed him Secretary of Interior in 1961.

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