By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – When Big Sky’s newest trail officially opens to the public, it will mark an expansion of a concept that’s been gaining traction locally and nationwide, and it’s something that Beth Shumate, the Helena-based trails program manager at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, has been looking forward to.

“The buzz word is ‘livability’ and [enhancing] livability within our communities,” said Shumate, who plans to attend the 4 p.m. Ralph’s Pass kick-off celebration at the Ousel Falls trailhead on June 15.

Ralph’s Pass is a natural-surface pathway that will connect two popular trail systems: Ousel Falls, Big Sky’s most popular hike; and Uplands Trail, a favorite for hikers, bikers and trail runners due in part to its proximity to Town Center and woodsy feel.

Shumate played a role in the funding of the Hummocks and Uplands trails in her post on the State Trails Advisory Committee, which allocates several million dollars of Recreation Trails Program funding to motorized, non-motorized and mixed-use trails around the state as well as education-based projects each year.

According to Big Sky resident Katie Morrison, a citizen member of STAC whose three-year term times out this year, a broad mix of projects and organizations in the area have benefitted from RTP funds, including Big Sky Community Organization, snowmobile and Nordic trail grooming in West Yellowstone, trail maintenance projects in Hyalite and Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.

“That’s the one for me that I think is so huge,” Morrison said, citing the potentially life-saving impact of avalanche education offered for free by GNFAC. “I would be hard pressed to [agree with] people who say we shouldn’t help fund that.”

Deciding on allocations can make for difficult decisions, as there tends to be far more requested each year than there is available. “I think we [typically] end up having about $1 million more in requests than we have in actual funding,” Morrison said.

Shumate doesn’t think the demand will fall off anytime soon.

“I anticipate that the importance of active communities and trail-related infrastructure will continue to increase, placing a greater emphasis on the need for additional funding for this type of infrastructure,” Shumate said, adding that maintenance can be an often-overlooked component to a healthy trail system.

Shumate takes it a step further, though, equating access to trails to an active and thriving population that lessens the strain on our nation’s health care system.

“The importance of trails as simple and inexpensive solutions is even more compelling as [we see an increase in] the disconnect between today’s youth and nature, and the health impact of a sedentary lifestyle,” Shumate said. “It is even more critical to educate, motivate and engage the health industry through citizen volunteers, organizations and the outdoor industry to plan, create, use and maintain local trail networks and consider new funding solutions.”

By all recent indications Big Sky community members are on board with that future.

At an April 6 meeting of Gallatin and Madison county commissioners, BSCO Executive Director Ciara Wolfe said a community needs assessment survey confirmed that trails and parks are “extremely valued in this community” and highlighted the fact that 90-plus percent of the survey respondents use Big Sky’s trails multiple times every month.

And they’re hungry for more. Wolfe said the survey found that additional mileage and trail linkages topped the community’s list of recreation priorities.