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Partnership header Making music at the Ashville festival, Blue Ridge Parkway
Bay Area Ridge Trail

Description: The Bay Area Ridge Trail is a planned multi-use 500-mile ridgeline trail that encircles the San Francisco Bay Area through nine counties. The 300th mile of the trail is anticipated to be opened to the public in late 2005. When completed, it will link more than 75 public parks and open space preserves along the ridgelines surrounding San Francisco Bay.

The Bay Area Ridge Trail began as a vision and partnership between Greenbelt Alliance, the East Bay Regional Park District, and the National Park Service. Greenbelt Alliance is a non-profit organization dedicated to establishing a permanent greenbelt in the Bay Area and served as the original fiscal agent for what would become a separate, independent nonprofit organization, the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council (Council). Today, the Council is responsible for the planning, promotion, designation, dedication, development and management of the Bay Area Ridge Trail.

Project goals include developing a continuous trail for hikers, equestrians and mountain bicyclists within a protected corridor of open spaces, and promoting appreciation of the outdoors through public access to nature.

In March 1987, William Penn Mott, Jr., then director of the NPS, articulated the vision of a ridge trail at a state parks and recreation conference in San Francisco.

In May 1987, Mark Evanoff of Greenbelt Alliance convened a strategy meeting on how to persuade the San Francisco Water Department to open their watershed lands to the public given their high recreational value. At the meeting, Brian O'Neill, Superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), proposed that the spirit of the recently-released President's Commission on Americans Outdoors report be carried out in the Bay Area.

A planning committee was formed in 1987 which included approximately 40 public agency, recreation groups, and individuals interested in this concept. With growing partnership and staff leadership, this group expanded over the following three years to include more ridge trail enthusiasts and formed the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council.

In the Council's initial years, Greenbelt Alliance provided office space and administrative support while the National Park Service provided first-year funding and a full-time staff person on detail from GGNRA. The Council incorporated in 1991 as a private, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with Board leadership provided by co-chairs Brian O'Neill and Marcia McNally, a professor at UC Berkeley experienced in community engagement. Initially, the Ridge Trail was supported through Congressional appropriations which helped complete the route planning and supported the dedication of nearly 200 miles of trail. Federal funding for the project was phased out in 1996.

Located in the San Francisco Presidio, the Council has a staff of six, 4,500 members and a growing corps of dedicated, grassroots volunteers. About three-quarters of its funding comes from private sources, individual membership support, major donors, foundations and corporations. In 2000, the Council formed a partnership with the California Coastal Conservancy (Conservancy) which administers funds from two state park bond measures, propositions 12 and 40. The Council will receive $7 million from the Conservancy for planning, acquisition, and trail construction.

The Bay Area Ridge Trail Council was conceived of as a public-private partnership, a structure which is reflected in the composition of the organization's board members: one-third are from public agencies, one-third are trail activists representing each of the nine Bay Area counties, and one-third are at large members. The 30-member board provides regional oversight, policy setting, technical and political support.

The Council also established a committee in each Bay Area county that provides a strong volunteer base and partners locally-connected trail activists with representatives of local public agencies. County committees, with support from Council staff, are responsible for defining the routes within the corridor, organizing public awareness activities, and dedicating proposed trail segments.

The top-down-bottom-up structure helps to ensure a consistent, high quality trail and satisfies the needs of a large, diverse, metropolitan constituency with members participating at many different levels.

With nearly 270 miles of the Ridge Trail open to the public, the Council is increasingly turning its attention to negotiating public access on private property. In 1999, the Trail Trust program was created to allow the Council to serve as a land trust and acquire, construct and manage sections of the trail. Through the program, the Council has negotiated three trail easements with private landowners and helped negotiate several fee-title acquisitions with its partners. It plans to begin construction in late spring 2005 on its first private land section of the trail in Napa County. Moving into this next challenge requires extensive outreach to private landowners and fundraising for trail maintenance and management on private lands.

The Council continues to develop and support public policies for the Ridge Trail and assist community partners in fundraising and trail maintenance efforts critical for its completion.

Geographic area covered: The Bay Area Ridge Trail is a planned 500-mile ridgeline corridor that stretches through nine Bay Area counties surrounding San Francisco Bay, connecting 75 parks and open space jurisdictions.

List of partners and relationships:

Public agencies: National Park Service, California State Parks, California Coastal Conservancy, East Bay Municipal Utility District, East Bay Regional Park District, Marin County Department of Parks, Open Space, and Cultural Services, Marin County Open Space District, Marin Municipal Water District, Novato Parks, Recreation and Community Services, City of Napa Community Resources Department, Napa County Public Works Department, Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, Sonoma County Regional Parks, Greater Vallejo Recreation Distorict, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, city of San Francisco, Presidio Trust, Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District, Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, San Mateo County Parks, Santa Clara County Parks, cities of Pacifica, Daly City, Petaluma, Benicia, Vallejo, Crockett, and Yountville

Participating Counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, and Sonoma

Trail and environmental organizations: Bay Area Open Space Council, Muir Heritage Land Trust, Solano Land Trust, The Greenbelt Alliance, Nature Conservancy, International Mountain Biking Association, Land Trust Alliance, The Trust for Public Land, Bay Area Barns and Trails, Peninsula Open Space Trust, East Bay Area Trails Council, and Muir Heritage Land Trust

Accomplishments to date:

  1. Established high visibility organization and trail identity.
  2. Roughly 270 miles of trail have been dedicated.
  3. Negotiated 20 miles of the eventual trail corridor protected in fee, two trail easements and one trail license.
  4. The Council decided to acquire and manage trail segments to make connections in the North Bay where public lands were more scattered.

Key success factors:

  1. A highly compelling vision and mandate. Formulating the big vision and goals avoided being mired in a debate over narrowly-defined agendas.
  2. Charismatic leadership and an initial steering group that could commit staff resources.
  3. Early buy in by major players.
  4. Influential board members and dues paying members at large.
  5. Nurturing partnerships and recruitment of dedicated advocates which is comprised of agencies, corporations, landowners, foundations, members and active volunteers.
  6. Organizational structure - the Council was conceived as a public/private partnership with regional staff and a dues-paying membership organization. The original planning committee wanted membership to be open to all, not just the traditional environmental or trails groups.
  7. Developing grassroots support and the idea that supporters in communities would be the ones to put the trail on the ground segment by segment.
  8. The effort included experts in trail planning and design, mapping, trail building, public relations, graphic arts, law, computer programming, and political savvy.
  9. The Council's ability to move forward and produce and publicize highly visible trail dedications maintained momentum and expanded involvement. The project receives a tremendous amount of local press coverage. Having 269 miles of the trail dedicated within 18 years has made the project immediately accessible to many who aren't involved on a day-to-day basis.


  1. Funding for recreational trail development is difficult to come by.
  2. The lack of operations and management funding makes it difficult to open new parks and trails.
  3. Work with private land owners to gain their support for the trail is a long term process to gain their support for participating in the trail.

Most important lessons learned to date: Early start up funding is critical to gain early success and build momentum; need to build in a culture of private fund raising early on to sustain operational funding over the long term. Involving diverse representatives key to buy in and long-term support.

What would you do differently next time:

Suggested resource materials:, "Guide to the Bay Area Ridge Trail", Jean Rusmore, Wilderness Press, 2002.

For more information:

Name: Holly Van Houten, Executive Director
Affiliation: Bay Area Ridge Trail
Phone/Fax: 415-561-2595

Name: Barbara Rice, Program Leader for Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance and former Executive Director of the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council
Affiliation: National Park Service, Pacific West Region
Phone/Fax: 510-817-1449

Name: Brian O'Neill
Affiliation: Superintendent, Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Phone/Fax: 415-561-4720
Email/website: Brian_O'

Partnership category(ies) (check all that apply)

Fundraising _X_; Capital Improvement __; Facility Management __; __; Trails _X_; Design __; Program Delivery __; Visitor Services __; Natural Resources Management/Restoration __; Cultural Resources __; Education/Interpretation __; Arts __; Information Services __; Transportation __; Mutual Aid/Emergency Services _X_; Fire Management __; Planning _X_; Tourism __; Community Relations __;

Other ____________________________

Prepared by: Suzanne Brinkley with assistance from Brian O'Neill and Holly Van Houten Date posted: 11/10/05
Phone: 510-817-1444

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