In 1997 the Texas legislature tapped the Texas Historical Commission, one of the original players on Connally’s five-agency Texas Travel Trails committee thirty years earlier, to devise a heritage tourism program for the state, and to tap into these federal funds.
The agency’s 1996–97 annual report noted “New Directions in Heritage Tourism” as a strategic priority. “This biennium, for the first time, the agency was appropriated funds to develop a heritage tourism program. It has been shown time and time again that visitors enjoy historic sites and are willing to spend their dollars touring and visiting these symbols of Texas history.” (A significant portion of that year’s brief report is devoted to plans for the new heritage tourism initiative, and it’s worth reading the entire document.)
TxDOT made tentative plans to merge the Travel Trails with a similar federal program of scenic byways, but the Texas legislature in 1997 instead tapped THC for the responsibility. THC, as custodians of the state’s past, found itself in the position of figuring out how best to use those assets for its future.
Someone—no one seems to recall who—in a September 1997 task force meeting, recalled the old Texas Travel Trails. It might have been the brainchild of Chairman John L. Nau himself. As the THC group defined it,
A Texas heritage trail combines natural, cultural and historic resources to form a cohesive, distinctive marketable unit that provides outstanding opportunities for conservation, heritage tourism, education, interpretation and recreation.
A Texas heritage trail may be defined by a common history or geography that links the resources to be preserved and marketed . . . Building on the trail’s unique identity, the program will stimulate the region’s economy, while fostering preservation efforts.
Revived and expanded to Heritage Trails Regions, the program would encompass all 254 counties this time around, and focus less on the driving tour than on the regional experience. Jim Kimmel and Andy Skadberg of Southwest Texas State University’s Center for Nature and Heritage Tourism were contracted to devise the plan.
Once again, counties, communities, and chambers were invited to submit proposals. Regions would operate under the THC’s umbrella as independent nonprofit organizations, each headed by a paid coordinator and run by a volunteer board. They would be financed initially by a three-year grant stemming from transportation enhancement funding, with the expectation that they would become self-sufficient through the development of partner or county contributions or other fund-raising efforts.
Janie Headrick of the Texas Historical Commission staff was the first statewide coordinator of the Trails program, which operated under the agency’s Community Heritage Division.
The application process was rigorous and lengthy, requiring the cooperation of numerous local organizations and demonstration of resources. Following the announcement of the Texas Forts Trail as the pilot program (a natural choice, as a local Texas Forts Trail was already in place to link several frontier forts and the Spanish presidio at San Saba), many groups vigorously lobbied the THC for inclusion.  In at least one part of the state — the Panhandle and Plains, local coalitions advocated for separate regions. But the original structure of ten trails prevailed.
The Texas Forts Trail Region debuted in 1998 with headquarters in Abilene.  A pilot study based on extensive site visits to the region was conducted and published in 1999, outlining mission and strategies.  Once again, caravans hit the road, and favorable publicity ensued. Forts was soon followed by the Independence, Forest, Lakes, and Brazos Trail Regions.
In West and South Texas, the process took a little longer, with the Texas Plains Trail Region coming on board in 2003, and Tropical, Pecos, Mountain, and Hill Country joining by 2006 to complete statewide coverage.
Thorough evaluations of each region’s heritage sites were conducted, with the assistance of THC staff, and these provided the raw material for the brochure series as well.