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Visit the Texas Heritage Trail Regions and see where it all happened

Texas Heritage Trails at 50: New Directions

By Barbara Brannon


Beginnings Texas Takes Action Planning the Trails Launching the Trails Travelers Take to the Trails New Directions Ongoing Travels

Description of the Plains Trail in Texas Monthly. [59]

On several occasions private sponsors helped make the Trails materials available. At the outset, in 1968 and 1969, Pearl Brewing branded and distributed a full-color booklet touting all ten trails. In 1991 Texas Monthly ran a series of supplements presenting updated descriptions of the trails, underwritten by GMC Trucks [59] (Frost Bank would later support a similar program, in 2002–03).

But the 1990s brought another game-changer, with the first major national highway legislation since the Eisenhower era, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). Among the law’s provisions was significant funding for enhancement of the travel experience, now that the Interstate system was largely complete. [60] Efforts could be focused on preserving and promoting highways. Planting wildflowers, Creating new rest areas, maps, historical interpretation.

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. [61] “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.” [62] (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. [63]

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. [64]

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. [65]

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. [66] 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. [67]

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. [68] 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. [69] A pilot study based on extensive site visits to the region was conducted and published in 1999, outlining mission and strategies. [70] 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. [71] [72]

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.

Texas Heritage Trails Regions, as of 2017. [72]

Continue to Ongoing Travels


59 Copies of these publications may be found in each collection cited here. Copies of some of the 1991 Texas Monthly sections, with THC staff annotations, are located in THT records, Folder 1, “Texas Travel Trails History,” “Texas Plains Trail,” excerpt from Texas Monthly [Sept. 1991].

60 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, HR 5920, U.S. Dept. of Transportation National Transportation Library, http://ntl.bts.gov/DOCS/istea.html, accessed March 2013; “Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intermodal_Surface_Transportation_Efficienc..., accessed March 2013.

61 Biennial Report. (Austin: Texas Historical Commission, 1997). The advent of ISTEA, and its influence on the enhancement of historic highways and tourism trails, could be explored further. The Texas legislature set aside $2 million for heritage tourism in 1997 when it tapped the THC to administer its heritage tourism program, but the correlation between ISTEA and the Texas legislature’s decision to pursue heritage tourism is not yet clear here, nor is the initial role of the intermediary, TxDOT.

62 “Breaking Out of the Box: New Approaches to Historic Preservation,” Texas Historical Commission Biennial Report 1995-96,” p. 5. Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

63 [Add citation for TxDOT plans]; “History and Status of the Texas Travel Trails Program,” THT records, Folder 1, “Texas Travel Trails History.”

64 THT records, Folder 3, “Heritage Trails General Information,” TC, Mario L. Sanchez to John L. Nau III, Curtis Tunnell, and John Preston, 2 Oct. 1997; TC, John Preston and Mario Sanchez to Heritage Tourism Committee, 8 Oct. 1997.

65 THT records, Folder 3, “Correspondence,” TCS, James R. Kimmel to Mario Sanchez, proposal 26 Jan. 1998.

66 [Add citations from TPTR clipping files]

67 As events played out, as of the time of this writing, none of the regions ever achieved such an ambitious goal; when the SAFTEA bill was passed as a successor to ISTEA, continued federal highway enhancement grants ensured an equitable level of funding for ten separate organizations that doubtless would have struggled to deliver consistent programming otherwise. When the expiration of SAFTEA grants was imminent after 2011, several Trail Region organizations joined together to form a for-profit LLC, which has begun to yield a separate revenue stream for the participating partners as a result of Authentic Texas Magazine (launched in 2015) and related enterprises.

68 [Add citation for correspondence and press clippings documenting community interest]

69 Texas Forts Trails sign. Image from www.TexasTimeTravel.com

70 Texas Historical Commission, The Texas Forts Trail Region: An Interdisciplinary Evaluation for the Texas Travel Trails Program, 1999, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. The report was produced with the assistance of the Texas Forts Trail Board of Directors, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Department of Transportation, Texas Department of Economic Development, Texas Commission on the Arts, and Robert W. Parvin, Texas Heritage Tourism Consultant.

71 [Add citation for years that Trails Regions joined]

72 Texas Heritage Trails Regions, as of 2006. Map from Texas Historical Commission.