When acquiring land piece by piece, there are a variety of options that can be used. The best course of action will always be to secure land in a fee title. This guarantees the free and complete right to the property and can be accomplished as a purchase, bargain sale or donation. There may be tax benefits available with bargain sales and donations. Another option may be to secure a recreational use easement. A recreational use easement (similar to a conservation easement) allows the landowner to maintain title to the property, but allows for public use of the property for trail development. There can be tax incentives for the landowner when it comes to granting recreational use easements as well. Lease agreements are not recommended due to the uncertainty of long-term ownership over time.
Piecing together private land to form a trail takes a lot of coordination on macro and micro levels. Before any one piece of property is purchased, make sure to have the ability to purchase all the land needed to link the destination to another phase of the project. This can be done by purchasing options. A purchase option gives the holder the right to buy a determined price within a given time frame. That gives the trail organizers time to work with different landowners to secure the needed properties, and then exercise the purchase option once there is a complete corridor.
Funding your trail will require significant time and energy. Persistence and a positive, inviting attitude are key. Here are some methods others have used to raise seemingly impossible amounts for their trails.
Consider: Why your trail is important and what it might cost
Some people will support your trail because they will want to use and enjoy it. Many more people will support your trail because of what it can bring to your community. It’s a wellness facility for people of all incomes and abilities. It helps to drive tourism, economic development and a vibrant workforce. Take some time to articulate what the trail will offer everyone someday and ask respected community leaders to provide quotes that speak to that.
Next, develop a rough big-picture budget. Estimate all the major elements you can think of: acquiring the corridor, professional engineering, construction, promotion, fundraising costs, recognition, celebrating successes. You’ll arrive at a really big number which can then be broken into segments or phases for fundraising purposes.
Also decide how major donors will be recognized at various levels of contribution. (For example: How much would a donor need to give in order to have a bridge named after them?) Ideally, this recognition is consistent for your entire trail, even if trail communities might lead local fundraising in different ways.
Fundraising for many trails has been done one bite at a time. First, secure the entire corridor, then complete construction on a few miles of trail at a time. Setting interim goals to get from Town A to Town B can be very motivating to donors. This also creates a series of celebrations as the trail makes progress, which attracts more donors as people begin to use the first segments of trail. Step-by-step successes can also keep volunteers and trail leaders motivated over several years, while creating opportunities for project publicity and donor recognition.
Give some thought to how maintenance or repairs will be funded long-term. You might decide it’s important to fundraise to create a reserve fund for on-going maintenance (like mowing or grooming) or for major repairs (like flood damage). Be careful about using the phrase “endowment funds.” Endowments cannot be spent: Instead they are invested, and only their earnings may be used. A $100,000 endowment can be expected to provide only $5,000 per year to be used on the trail—while a $100,000 reserve fund or repair fund can be fully available to cover emergency repairs if needed.
Public + private funding
Most trails rely on competitive public grants for 75% or more of total project revenue. Private contributions from foundations, businesses and individuals often provide up to 25% of total trail costs. It’s important to create strategies for both kinds of fundraising, because neither can be expected to complete a trail alone.
Strong support from the private sector can help you compete successfully for public grants. Likewise, many public grants require local matching funds, and that requirement creates opportunities and momentum for private fundraising campaigns.
Hone trail vision
Identify trail corridor
Create a budget
Solicit corridor segments (letter of intent)