As walkers, hikers and bikers make their way onto the crushed limestone gravel of one of Western Pennsylvania’s many trail systems, it might not seem as though they are merging onto an economic highway.
But if they’re stepping onto the Great Allegheny Passage — the trail between Pittsburgh’s Point State Park and Cumberland, Md., — that “highway” generated more than $121 million in economic impacts in 2019, according to a report prepared by national community consulting firm Fourth Economy.
Throughout Western Pennsylvania, residents have access to more than 300 miles of trails in more than 25 locations. And many take advantage: Estimates show the trails get about 3 million visitors annually.
Many trails see heavy use and require regular maintenance, which is handled largely through a cooperative effort among trail officials, volunteer groups and the towns through which they pass.
In West Newton, Leslie Pierce serves as business manager for the nonprofit Regional Trail Corp., which acquires land, promotes trail development and helps maintain sections of the Great Allegheny Passage, Westmoreland Heritage, Coal & Coke and Five Star trails.
“We have a core of people that we rely on,” Pierce said. “But we’re not getting any younger.”
The RTC organizes trail maintenance through 10 local chapters or organized local trail councils.
Bryan Perry, executive director of the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy, said volunteers are the main force behind trail maintenance of the GAP, handling everything apart from projects requiring contractors.
“We wouldn’t be anywhere without the good graces of the folks coming out on a Saturday morning or Wednesday with hedge trimmers and clippers,” he said.
The GAP trail is owned by seven primary entities, ranging from nonprofits to county offices, Perry said. Each of the owners maintains the section of the trail within their regional footprint. Although some of the entities have a few paid employees, few of them focus solely on managing the trail.
According to Perry, this is what makes the volunteers so essential. He estimates there are hundreds of volunteers who perform more than 10,000 hours of trail maintenance annually.
“It’s quite remarkable what these volunteers do,” Perry said.
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