By Barbara Brannon
|Beginnings||Texas Takes Action||Planning the Trails||Launching the Trails||Travelers Take to the Trails||New Directions||Ongoing Travels|
Over the years our ten Heritage Trail Regions have operated with slightly different approaches, projects, promotions, funding methods, and goals — and their individual stories remain to be written. But we have all contributed rich content, promotions, and knowledge to our state’s tourism efforts, thanks to energetic regional coordinators (executive directors, since 2011) and dedicated volunteer boards. Upon the retirement of Janie Headrick, Teresa Caldwell became statewide coordinator of the program.
Federal grants administered by the THC via TxDOT were succeeded in fiscal year 2017 by contract funds via the Office of the Governor for Economic Development and Tourism and, beginning in fiscal year 2018, have allowed all ten regions to implement tourism and heritage promotions that have made Texas the envy of the nation. Initiatives like regional cooperative advertising campaigns, group travel itineraries, passport programs, behind-the-scenes heritage tours, social media engagement, maps and books, visitor assistance during and after natural disasters, travel-show exhibits, event promotions, community education, hospitality training, a network of giant arrows recognizing Native history, tourism passport programs, and full-color magazines and travel guides provide travelers with reliable information about authentic destinations, and provide partners with affordable marketing options. The regions continue to deliver effective results on a lean budget.
In 2005 the Texas Heritage Trails program was jointly recognized with the Preserve America Presidential Award, presented by President and Mrs. Bush.  The award was presented “for exemplary accomplishment in the preservation and sustainable use of America's heritage assets, which has enhanced community life while honoring the nation's history,” and the following year the program also received a Preserve America grant for developing the Heritage Tourism Guidebook and for providing heritage tourism training across the state. 
Today the Heritage Trails continue to bring visitors to Texas sites and communities, increasing tourist dollars and hotel stays, and getting folks excited about historic preservation, and contributing to an industry that has grown from a $1 billion annual impact to more than $70 billion. The extensive UT/Rutgers “Economic Impact of Historic Preservation in Texas” study (2015) shows that more than 12 percent of that is attributable to heritage tourism. As THC commissioner John L. Nau III noted as far back as 2002 at the first Federal Heritage Tourism Summit in Washington, D.C., travelers’ increasing interest in “visiting the past” can yield an economic bonanza for localities, states, and the nation, if we are diligent to preserve, research, interpret, and promote our authentic places and their stories.
A personal perspective
In the end, a visionary program that has yielded economic benefit to our state it about much more than money alone. It’s about recreation, inspiration, imagination, and gratitute for our natural, scenic, and and cultural heritage. When I met original Parkway study team member Jerry Rogers quite by chance a few years ago, he said that what he found most gratifying, and amazing, is that the Heritage Trails program had turned out so much like the vision those idealists originally imagined.
I want to leave you with a few words from our creation story, from the closing paragraph of Urbanovsky’s 1967 Texas Parkway Study. “Perhaps the term Recreation Environment can be expressed in the Plains Indian word Waucaunda. It meant ‘Great Spirit.’ . . . For the Indian saw Waucaunda everywhere: in the sun, the moon, and the stars; in the earth, the waters, and the wind; in the eagle, the trees, and the buffalo. Waucaunda was a profound and reverent identification between man and his environment. [Today we have] almost lost that identification. But we can regain it through Recreational Environment. This is our challenge: to influence future development so that recreation [—and I will add, enjoyment of our heritage and culture—] will become an integral part of our daily lives.”
We hope that what we learn about our own past will help inform and secure the program’s future, for the benefit of travelers everywhere. Barbara Brannon’s research into twentieth-century American social history ranges from bookstores to back roads and encompasses forms as diverse as folk songs, travel blogs, magazine features, and a highway history. The author of The Ferries of North Carolina: A Guide to the State’s Nautical Highways, she currently serves as executive director of the Texas Plains Trail Region. She holds the MA and PhD in American literature from the University of South Carolina and undergraduate degrees in art and English from Georgia College.
73 “2005 Preserve America Presidential Awards Presented,” http://www.preserveamerica.gov/news-05PApresawards.html, accessed January 2014.
74 “Texas Heritage Trails: A Regional Tourism Initiative,” http://www.thc.texas.gov/preserve/projects-and-programs/texas-heritage-t..., accessed 8 Jan. 2018.