Going the Distance
By definition, a trail is an established path or route through a certain area. However, many of us know it to be so much more. A trail is a path that not only connects one location to another, but also connects people to nature, and communities to history.
Whether it is experiencing Hawai'i’s unique blend of cultures on Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail along the shoreline, following in the footsteps of the Spanish colonists along the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, or walking the same path as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, the National Trails System is here to help you experience the stories of those who forged their own path in American history.
We recently talked with Luke Kloberdanz, Director of Philanthropy at Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA), about what it takes to support a national trail and the power of philanthropic partnership.
With a Little Help
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail (IANST) is just one of many trails supported by the National Park Service. With a variety of trails that range from scenic to history, each with their unique story to tell, the trails supported by the National Park Service often turn to nonprofit partners and others to ensure visitors can experience all that these trails have to offer. Currently, support of IANST chiefly consists of a “triad” of federal, state, and nonprofit support – in addition to the National Park Service, IANST is supported by the Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA) and Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. However, the partnerships do not end there. As a thousand-mile footpath that winds through 31 counties in Wisconsin, the IANST crosses private land, city parks and state, and county, state, and national forests. As part of their support of the trail, IATA works with partners from each of these pieces of land to help manage and maintain it.
IATA’s work and partnerships have grown immensely over time. Born out of the merging of two separate organizations – a council and a foundation – in the 1990s, the history of the Alliance began with many challenges in attempts to receive national recognition. Later in the early 2000s, IATA was able to professionalize the trail construction and land acquisition aspects of the organization and became an accredited land trust organization over five years ago. Currently, the organization continues to be a multi-faceted organization that handles trail building and maintenance, land protection, land management, youth and education programs, increasing equity in the outdoors, and so much more. This work is made possible largely due to the immense number of volunteers and partners IATA has cultivated over the years, including the National Park Foundation.
“NPF has helped open that door for us, has shown flexibility and sensitivity to challenges as a lesser-known trail, and has put value back into the IATA, adding confidence in us.”
In 2019, IATA received a Rivers and Trails Grant from the National Park Foundation to support the Mobile Skills Crew program, in which volunteers certified in crew leadership teach first-time volunteers construction and maintenance techniques. “Volunteers really help carry the day and are the advocates on the ground. They help us guide how we can improve the trail and the trail experience” said Luke. “In fact, without our volunteers, the Ice Age Trail would just be another line on a map.”
Another IATA program, Saunters, connects local community groups and school districts with the Trail, and annually sees more than 2,300 participants. Stemming from the success of Saunters, IATA began their Think Outside program, funded by the National Park Foundation’s Open OutDoors for Kids initiative, with a lofty goal of engaging 10,000 fourth graders to take their educational experiences out of the classroom and into nature.
In partnership with the National Park Foundation, IATA has been able to attend National Park Friends Alliance meetings, take part in the Strong Parks, Strong Communities (SPSC) Strategic Growth Initiative cohort, and participate in the Friends Leadership Institute, developing additional relationships with other park partners and gaining guidance and training on building their organization’s capacity. “The people I have met through the Friends Alliance meetings have helped us expand and provided us with influence,” Luke responded, adding how grateful he is for inspiration from the many people he has met at these meetings, including Doug Mitchell of Glacier National Park Conservancy and Deb Yandala of Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley NP. And whether it’s the Friends Alliance meetings, calls with the SPSC cohorts, or brainstorming calls with NPF staff, “I always leave with a sense of optimism and feeling of excitement.”
Both the Ice Age National Scenic Trail & Ice Age Trail Alliance have always been rooted in the possibilities made possible through partnership. Like the National Park Foundation’s Friends Alliance, the Partnership for the National Trails System (PNTS), where Luke also serves as a board member, works to connect the many organizations that serve the 30 trails within the National Trails System to collaborate and increase collective impact. “PNTS is a collection of voices and ideas, and there’s a collective march towards improvement,” Luke described. Through PNTS, IATA and other organizations supporting trails have learned from each other and created new ways to work together. Partnerships through PNTS with other trail organization leaders such as Teresa Martinez, Executive Director of Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC) have proved inspirational as well as vital in developing management strategies. Similar to the IATA, CDTC also works with additional federal and state organizations like the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management to protect the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT). The CDT is one of the most significant trail systems in the world and travels through five states. Martinez and the CDTC help manage this long stretch of trail through their CDT Gateway Communities - welcoming destinations for visitors throughout the trail’s many states.
One of the major benefits of PNTS is that it brings together organizations from both scenic and historic trails. Learning from the organizations that historic trails, such as the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail Association, expanded Luke’s thinking about the cultural and historic aspects of IANST, even though it is considered a “scenic” trail. “It’s not just about the geology, but the culture and history of the trail and how we share those stories. It is important to be sensitive to the people that the land belonged to and expand the trail’s story from just geology to cultural as well.” El Camino Real de los Tejas, which translates to “The Royal Road of the Tejas (Indians),” is a historic trail through Texas that is divided into four regions. The Association manages these regions with the assistance of their regional board members and relationships between citizens, local historical groups, tourism bureaus, and the National Park Service, striving to build a strong citizen group to support the trail and focusing on areas of advocacy, education, resource protection, and more. Partnerships like these help organizations discover new ideas and invite new perspectives. “So many good people that all have their own assets to bring to the table, and as long as you are willing to listen, you can learn so much.”
A Personal Touch
Luke is one of 11 full-time staff members at IATA and began his work with IATA as a volunteer in 2000. On the trail throughout these last 20 years, he helped build a 180-foot bridge as a volunteer, completed a thru-hike in 49 days as a trail enthusiast, started the Saunters program as a local partner, and worked diligently on educational outreach as a staff member. Now IATA’s Director of Philanthropy, Luke continues to be an avid supporter of the trail and never stops seeking ways to strengthen the work of the Alliance and impact the trail has on its visitors.
“The trail changed who I am as a person and helped me find the good that exists in others.”
“The Ice Age Trail has such a variation in experiences. It has everything from the Lake Michigan shore walking on the beach to going through small communities. It winds through north woods, maple forests, and rolling terrain and it connects all of these amazing natural features of the state,” explained Luke. “And, it is open to all, which is one of the things I like most about it.”
Tracing a glacier’s edge in Wisconsin, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail offers a variety of recreational opportunities, including hiking, backpacking, camping, snowshoeing, hunting, fishing, and much more. Additionally, interpretive centers along the trail describe the history and geology of the region and Trail Communities tell the cultural stories of the area and the communities that have called it home.
Trails have many miles to explore, so #FindYourPark / #FindYourTrail and map your journey at one of the 30 National Scenic and Historic Trails across the country. Explore what each trail has to offer and remember to recreate responsibly and leave no trace!