We Are the Trail Conference

October 19, 2019
Joshua Howard, Executive Director
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference


We Are the Trail Conference
Faces of the Trail Conference Logo


On Oct. 19, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference turned 99 years old.

That’s nearly a century of service in the greater New York metropolitan area ensuring open space is protected and people have access to the outdoors via safe, well-maintained trails.

Though the landscape where we serve looks very different than it did in 1920, it’s quite extraordinary that the heart of this organization beats with the same passion and energy as when it was founded. That passion and energy belongs to the volunteers who not only built the Trail Conference into one of the most resilient nonprofits in the region, but also literally built a network of more than 2,100 miles of trails that connect the public with nature.

For 99 years, Trail Conference volunteers have been providing millions of trail users with a means to explore the outdoors. The culture of volunteerism at the Trail Conference has become the fabric of our organization. It is our legacy—a legacy that will continue into our second century. We are committed to supporting and enhancing our volunteer program now more than ever. Our volunteers make us the vibrant and impactful nonprofit that ensures the public has access to the most diverse network of trails in any metropolitan area. The investment these selfless individuals have made into the organization and its mission is the foundation on which outdoor recreation in this region was shaped. On the day the Trail Conference was established, our founders and park officials met to plan the first system of trails in Harriman State Park. Fast-forward to this August, when we convened land manager partners and leaders in the hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian communities to address the challenges and opportunities in creating new multi-use trails and trail networks for multiple user groups.

Our volunteers play a vital role in these movements because they are the boots on the ground building and caring for these trails, day in and day out. They fill the gaps when our park partners are unable to dedicate sufficient resources to the demands on their land and trails. Some of these demands we never could have imagined even a few years ago—challenges such as the unprecedented swell in popularity on some trails thanks to social media. We are operating in a changing environment, both literally and figuratively. Our partners count on us to stay focused on issues that affect parks in the region, bringing together key constituencies, marshaling resources, and seizing opportunities to keep improving our public trail systems while maintaining the ecological integrity of trail lands. And so, with more than 2,000 volunteers serving as the engine that powers the organization’s ability to create great trail experiences, we have been able to adapt, evolve, and grow in new and exciting ways.

Because the “trail experience” is about so much more than the trail itself, the Trail Conference has made a commitment to the ecological stewardship of our forests and parks. Since 2011 when the Invasives Strike Force was introduced as a Trail Conference program, we have strived to be regional leaders in protecting native habitats by combatting invasive species. Most recently that has included the addition of a conservation dog to our Invasives team, which is increasing both the quality and quantity of our invasive surveys.

Our ingenuity in finding solutions and adapting them for the needs of our partners and the public led us to launch a Trail and Summit Stewards program in 2013 and a Conservation Corps program the same year. Our Trail and Summit Stewards educate and assist the public in the responsible and enjoyable use of trails; they have made significant impact in improving user safety and preparedness and protecting the land at some of the most popular outdoor destinations in the region.

This season, the Stewards became part of our Conservation Corps program. The Corps program was born in 2013 from the need to have a full-time presence on the massive Appalachian Trail rehabilitation on Bear Mountain. This 14-year project had two specific outcomes: build a better, safer, more sustainable trail for park visitors; and develop a pool of trained volunteers to support the vast network of trails in the Hudson Valley. Training and deploying a Conservation Corps was essential in accomplishing both these goals. The Trail Conference now fields several Corps crews every season and has become a training ground for future conservation leaders.

Our history is steeped in service and resourcefulness. Our volunteers have enabled us to evolve into an organization that has developed cutting-edge techniques to protect our open spaces and train and develop the next generation of trail stewards, all while holding true to the legacy of those first volunteers who left New York City to tame the wilds of Harriman. We are proud to be trailblazers in both vision and action. Our nimbleness in responding to needs, willingness to address our weaknesses and adapt to meet new challenges, and steadfastness in deploying dedicated volunteers has helped the Trail Conference remain at the forefront of creating positive recreational opportunities outdoors for 99 years. What the next century looks like, no one knows. But you can count on the Trail Conference to be there, working hard to protect the land you love.