Local leader attends international trails conference


Elyse Peters of the United Way of Central Alabama (UWCA) will be using the knowledge she gained at a recent gathering of trails industry leaders to jump-start the next phase of improvements at Walker County Lake.

Peters, UWCA's assistant vice president for community impact, attended the 24th International Trails Symposium and Training Institute (ITS) in Syracuse, New York, which was held April 28-May 1. The national nonprofit American Trails hosts the ITS every two years.

Peters, a Texas native who came to Walker County as an AmeriCorp VISTA in 2013 and has been central HAP's successes in recent years, was one of the 16 participants age 21 to 28 invited to attend as an Emerging Trail Leader. The Emerging Trail Leaders Program teaches best practices and trends in trails to encourage young adults pursuing careers in natural resource management.

All expenses were paid for the Emerging Trail Leaders, who attended several workshops tailored for them before taking part in events associated with the ITS.

A big focus of this year's ITS was mountain biking trails.

"They're so popular right now nationwide as both a quality of life and an economic driver," Peters said. 

However, American Trails also works on behalf of trails related to hiking, bicycling and water — all of which relate to Peters' work with HAP.

Since 2017, HAP has been working on the Walker County Waterways project, which is developing six access points along three waterways and connecting 31 miles of navigable streams.

HAP has also been involved in the effort to open up hiking trails at Walker County Lake.

Attending the ITS confirmed what Peters already knew about how unique it is to work in Walker County, where community members volunteer their time and resources to pull off projects that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

The latest example is the new archery park at the lake, which received $25,000 in funding from the Walker Area Community Foundation but was also created thanks to numerous volunteers who donated time, equipment or materials.

In comparison, Syracuse city leaders learned shortly after the ITS wrapped up that an estimated $36 million will be spent by the state of New York to close a 14-mile gap in a trail that runs through the city and other parts of central New York.

"It was really validating to realize all of the great work that our community has done in a short amount of time with limited resources compared to other projects," Peters said.

Though work began on the trails at Walker County Lake in 2016, the effort to create a five-mile loop stalled because of the need to build bridges that would connect the west side of the lake to the east side.

In the meantime, HAP and its partners completed work on the archery park.

Peters said the next steps are to begin bridge construction and to bring in a consultant to discuss the plans for beginner and perhaps intermediate mountain bike trails, which would be separate from hiking trails at the lake.

"One of the things that I took away from the conference is that we need to invest in sustainable trail building because if you do that on the front end, there will be much less maintenance on the back end. With mountain biking, there is a specific flow and technique, much more nuance in how people engage with those trails than a normal walking trail," Peters said.