When Americans think about the National Park Service (NPS), places such as Grand Canyon National Park, the National Mall, and Yosemite National Park usually come to mind. Most people are unaware of the important work done by smaller programs within NPS that are just as critical to the goals of conservation and outdoor recreation.

The second sentence of the National Park Service mission statement reads, “the Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.” [National Park Service System Plan]. The Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program (RTCA) is critical to this work.

RTCA positions the NPS to be a collaborative partner to local organizations by providing technical assistance to help them achieve their conservation and outdoor recreation goals. These projects supported by RTCA are vital to a community’s vibrancy and physical and mental health. RTCA’s work supports conservation goals, such as preserving land corridors – which are important for wildlife- flood protection, and greenways that can simultaneously provide a buffer for wildlife habitat and trails for additional recreational opportunities. These projects remain under the ownership and direction of the community, not the NPS. This year RTCA is working with over 350 partners to help local communities advance their conservation goals.

In practice, that means each staff member of RTCA will work with two to three community-based groups annually to provide assistance in developing local conservation goals and organize and identify funding for those priorities. This service is crucial in communities whose local governments do not employ dedicated conservation or planning commission staff, such as in under resourced rural areas and many urban areas. RTCA has the expertise to identify grants among federal, state, and private organizations and provide local organizations assistance to better compete for these resources. For example, RTCA’s current project in support of the Driftless Area Karst Trail in Minnesota includes identifying funding as one of goals in support of developing a driving trail that highlights Karst geology across Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

RTCA is oversubscribed, with more requests for assistance than they can support. Unfortunately, states without a history of conservation tend to have fewer applications, which makes RTCA’s outreach efforts in those areas all the more critical. The RTCA program accounts for less than one percent of the overall NPS budget and, as seen in the chart below, its budget has not grown along with the rest of the NPS, resulting in fewer services to underserved communities and reducing the agency’s role as an advocate for conservation and outdoor recreation. While there is a requested increase for Fiscal Year 2023, it would cover only part of the program’s fixed cost increases.

FY 2023 (requested)

FY 2022

FY 2021

FY 2013

11.289 million (requested)

10.699 million

10.699 million

10.079 million

The pandemic highlighted for all the need for communities to maintain access to outdoor space. Open space is critical for not just physical and mental health, but for providing communities a place to gather We know that the most important park in the country is the one down the street; where you can get fresh air, walk the dog, and play with family after work and on weekends. RTCA is NPS’s tool to support close to home conservation and recreation. All communities should have plentiful access to outdoor and recreation opportunities. RTCA’s important work helps fill the vital need to bring these green spaces to all communities throughout the country, ensuring NPS meets it mission as a Service to all Americans.

You can visit this interactive map to see how they are working in your community.

A sincere thank you to Steve Golden for his time, expertise, and assistance.