History and Organization of the Florida Trail Association
Created by James Kern in the 1960s, the Florida Trail Association (FTA) was founded to create a long-distance trail in Florida. In 1966 the FTA established the first orange blaze on the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest and by 1983 the Florida Trail was recognized as a National Scenic Trail. Today the Florida Trail stretches more than 1,500 miles across the state from Big Cypress National Preserve in south Florida to the Gulf Islands National Seashore and is administered by the USDA Forest Service, connecting the Florida Trail to the larger National Scenic Trail.
Today the Florida Trail Association is run by regional trail managers and the state is split into 4 regions, the Panhandle Region, Northern Region, Central Region, and Southern Region. Every portion of the trail is maintained by local chapters run by volunteers. According to Jenna Taylor, the Regional Trail Manager of the Central and Southern regions, the driving mission of the 19 local chapters is to promote, maintain, and protect all 1,500 acres of the Florida National Scenic Trail. Each of the chapters maintains trails within their regions and promotes community engagement and education about their trails and communities.
The South Florida and Central Region of the Florida Trail Association
The South and Central regions of the Florida Trail Association have trails tracing through some of the most developed parts of the state. The chapters and volunteers working in these regions use this odd mixture of their urban and natural environments to introduce locals to the history and culture of their cities. For example, the Big Cypress chapter located in Miami-Dade County leads urban hikes introducing chapter members to the greenspaces and history of Miami. The chapters in the Southern Region will also do regular hikes through Big Cypress National Preserve, water management areas throughout the Everglades, and regular hikes from Lake Okeechobee to Hobe Sound beach on the Atlantic coast. These chapters make the best of the sidewalks, trails, and roadsides they have to expand their trails and grow their communities.
Building Community One Chapter at a Time
Ms. Taylor noted that some chapters have a generational aspect to them. Some volunteers have been members for nearly 50 years. Remembering an article discussing the chapter of the foundation she said that the chapters, “…maintain the trail with the enthusiasm of proud parents.” Talking about the Loxahatchee chapter of the Florida Trail Association Ms. Taylor noted the unique relationships between members noting that generations of hikers and nature lovers are bonding over their stewardship of the trails and passing knowledge onto younger generations about the challenges and joys of hiking through Florida’s greenspaces. Even if people are unable to actively hike, they still search out ways to support others in the community by acting as Trail Angels, passing out water and snacks at waypoints, or ferry hikers from the end of a trail to the trailhead to start their hiking adventure.
Social and Ecological Benefits of Trails in Florida
When it comes to trail use it is normal to look at the benefits that trails and hiking groups have for individuals. Recounting examples that she has seen from the chapters that she regularly interacts with Ms. Taylor stated, “…the chapters are really the leaders, but it’s really neat to hear couples who met on doing trail work and got married. You know, I had a guy telling me just a really emotional story about a guy he met, doing trail work, and they became best friends.” Bonds formed over a few minutes that turn into lifetime relationships. Local chapters of the FTA can provide communities for people new to the area, making the transition of moving a little easier. Aside from the group benefits taken from the time being spent in the great outdoors at an individual level, spending time on trails, away from others is often seen as a meditative experience. Stepping away from the movement of everyday life provides an opportunity to connect with nature and our thoughts. Along with the mental and social benefits trials provide to individuals, well-maintained trails can provide safe passage and habitat to Florida’s variety of native plant and animal species.
Safety for Hikers = Safety for Animals
When you stop to think about it, trails are just an additional type of corridor for animals to use as passage from one green space to the next. As it stands, there is a total of 5,841 miles of trails within the Florida Wildlife Corridor, 968 of these miles also make up the Florida National Scenic Trail. The Florida National Scenic Trail and Wildlife Corridor are both seeing perilous situations unfold with the growth of Florida. While expanding roads, and suburbs, and adding new train tracts can make our lives easier, it can also make things more dangerous for the wildlife and humans making use of the Florida National Scenic Trail. If a spot is dangerous for wildlife to cross, you can rest assured that it is just as dangerous for hikers making their way from point A to point B.