Payson’s sitting on the proverbial fountain of youth.
But at the moment — it’s more like a trail to nowhere.
Study after study proves people who live in a town with a good trail system live longer, suffer fewer chronic diseases and a report a greater sense of well-being.
And that’s not even taking into account the long list of studies showing a trails system bolsters a region’s economy — and provides more significant bang for the buck than almost any other infrastructure investment.
“More overall physical activity is measured in communities after trails are built. Cardiovascular benefits are seen across all trail user types. This means healthier hearts, and a reduction in preventable disease for trail users,” according to American Trails.org.
“For every one dollar spent on trails, there is a three-dollar savings in health care costs … Countless studies show people self-reporting reduced stress, clearer thought patterns, more optimism, and an overall heightened sense of well-being after being outdoors.”
But Payson’s once ambitious trails master plan has all but stalled out. The town developed its Payson Area Trails System plan more than 15 years ago — but has all but abandoned it.
Consequently, the town didn’t even bother to apply for trails grants when a flood of infrastructure money in the recent pandemic relief measures became available. By contrast, Navajo County and the towns of Taylor and Snowflake snagged several million dollars in federal infrastructure money to expand an already extensive trail system there.
Despite the wealth of research on the health and economic benefits of trails, the PATS is lifeless. Payson created an ambitious plan for a network of in-town walking and bike trails, intended to connect to existing Forest Service trails. The town planned to get developers to pay for the system by imposing parks and recreation infrastructure fees. However, first the 2008 recession dried up new development — then the state legislature sharply limited infrastructure fees towns could impose on developers.
Payson basically shrugged — and ultimately abandoned its trails system.
However, communities across the country have reaped big rewards by creating trails systems — both to lure visitors and to improve the lives of residents.
Real world benefits
When Vermont invested in a trails system — it quickly drew additional grant funding that led to the creation of the Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sport program, according to American Trails. Through this program, the state expanded access to outdoor activities, which increased the number of people enjoying the health benefits of being outdoors.
“People with disabilities are more likely to have other health issues like heart disease, stroke, or diabetes, which is why it is so important to provide programs for people to be active and live a healthy lifestyle,” said Erin Fernandez, Vermont Adaptive’s executive director.
Other communities have found that trails systems became major economic drivers — and helped people get around on foot or on bikes. Baton Rouge built the Health Loop Trail, which now connects shopping, parks, and walking trails with the city’s medical complex.
“These are just some examples of the programs across the country bringing together the outdoor recreation industry and the health industry to promote both mental and physical health,” wrote American Trails.
One study funded by the Walton Family Foundation (of Walmart fame) collected data on the economic and health benefits of bike trails built in Arkansas. According to the report, the Economic and Health Benefits of Bicycling in Northwest Arkansas. The bike trails averted $7 million in health care costs for those residents who lived near trails.
Businesses reported better retention of employees who had access to trails. Businesses also preferred to locate near trails because trail users are good customers. The trail improved visibility and accessibility to a larger customer base. Out-of-state visitors who used trails in 2018 spent $27 million. Homes close to trails increased in value.
“Nearly 30% of residents surveyed identified the availability of bike trails as extremely important in deciding where to live,” stated the report.
The Catena Foundation, also funded by the Waltons, has already invested close to $500,000 in studies on restoration and reroutes of Rim Country trails. Its most recent six-figure donation will fund Phase II and III of the Highline Trail restoration project currently in process.
So here are some of the studies that have demonstrated big health benefits for residents in towns with a trails system:
Michigan: Bike and Hiking trails impact on health and wealth
After several communities combined forces to build a trails system, researchers studied the results. Michigan households spent $175 million per year on bicycling-related expenses — and bike makers generated another $11 million in annual revenue. Bicycle events and tourism generated $38 million in spending. Respondents said they used the trails regularly. Researchers tracked the likely health effects of the trails and concluded the trails saved communities in the region perhaps $256 million in costs associated with diseases caused by inactivity.
England: Trails system reduced obesity — increased lifespan
A study in the medical journal The Lancet cited multiple previous studies on the reduction in obesity and mortality among trail users. “The authors hypothesize that proximity to green space helps to increase residents’ physical activity, thus explaining lower overall mortality and (death) due to circulatory disease,” wrote the authors in their study.
The study also documented health benefits for children from even mild outdoor exercise.
Florida: Doctors prescribe outdoor exercise
Researchers developed a park prescription pilot program that partnered pediatricians with parents and their children. Doctors prescribed an hour of moderate outdoor physical exercise after school. They picked children with a body mass index in the 85th percentile or above, which means they were at risk of developing type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Every three months, doctors measured the children’s height, weight, blood pressure, physical fitness, mental health, wrist, and waist circumferences. The data was fed into a software program that generated a “report card” on the patient’s progress, which showed continuous improvement. Pediatricians found parents more likely to remain involved in the program with doctor participation.
Illinois: Trails Reduce Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
A study from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign found children with ADHD who walked in parks concentrated better than those who walked through neighborhoods or downtown areas. “This study is relevant for those making a case for the value of park-based programs for children, particularly those with ADHD,” wrote the authors of the study.
England: Walking program reduces stress, depression
A study of 70,000 hikers on local trails who participated in the government’s Walking for Health program reported significant gains in mental health. Participants reported reduced depression, stress and negativity, while reporting an overall sense of mental well-being. “This study is useful for those looking for robust evidence of the mental and emotional benefits of group walking programs, particularly those based in nature,” wrote the study’s authors.
West Virginia: A trails system drew people who had never hiked
The rural community of Morgantown built a trails system, then surveyed users once the system was established. The survey found that one-quarter of the trails regular users had never regularly hiked before. “For most of these newly-active residents, the trail was the only place where they exercised and they reported the trail’s safety, paved and flat terrain, and convenience as the most important considerations in deciding to use the trail,” wrote the study’s authors.
Missouri: Trails offer biggest gains to low-income residents
Low-income residents gained the most from a trails system built in rural Missouri. “Trails that were at least a half mile long, paved, or located in the smallest towns were associated with the largest increases in exercise,” wrote the study’s authors. The paved and gravel-surfaced trails got the most use in parks and within the town limits. Interestingly, widows are among the most regular trail users. Trails with an easily accessible trailhead and paving or gravel surfaces got the most use.