Maine outing club students pause to take in a view while hiking Pleasant Pond Mountain during the 2016 Teens to Trails Spring Thing, a weekend camping event for students to learn outdoor skills and network with other outing club students. Teens To Trails is a nonprofit organization that helps high school outing clubs throughout Maine through networking, training and grants. Credit: Courtesy of Teens to Trails

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Alicia Heyburn is the executive director of Teens to Trails.

Recently, Teens to Trails hosted more than 160 middle and high school students for a weekend of camping, rafting and hiking in The Forks. While this annual event may sound challenging, it is an inspiring experience for all involved.

The energy was palpable, and all around the campground, laughter and lively conversation could be heard. One participant told their teacher it was the happiest they had been in five years. That is power that the Maine outdoors holds, and more often than not, trails help make these positive experiences possible.

A trail is an invitation to adventure and discovery; it sparks excitement and possibility.

Teens to Trails has joined with nearly 300 other outdoor recreation organizations, local businesses, and towns in supporting the Maine Trail Bond (LD 1156). While we represent many different users, we are all coming together from across Maine to urge the Legislature to invest in trails this legislative session with a $30 million bond to provide Maine youth, residents and visitors with safe, accessible outdoor space. It would be the first time Maine created a dedicated source of funding for maintaining and expanding trails statewide.

Teens to Trails supports outdoor programs at 68 Maine schools, and we consistently hear teachers say that non-competitive, group, outdoor experiences like hiking and trail work bring immense mental health benefits like joy, social connection, purpose and pride.

Teenagers are losing their connection with nature at an accelerated pace. In today’s fast-paced and technology-driven world, young people are spending less time outside and more time inside, which has negative effects on their mental well-being.

One-third (32 percent) of Maine middle school students and almost half (43 percent) of Maine high school students report poor mental health, including stress and anxiety, according to recent school health surveys. Nearly half (43 percent) of Maine schools lack access to nature within a 10-minute walk of campus.

As Mainers whose connection to the outdoors defines our way of life, we know from experience and scientific  research that spending time outdoors can have a significant positive impact on mental health, particularly for those who feel isolated or lonely.  

In a powerful essay calling for Americans to address the epidemic of loneliness, the   U.S. Surgeon General reported that social connection is influenced by community infrastructure and urged us all to find spaces without technology. Trails enable activities like hiking and walking that actively connect Maine youth to each other, town resources, and nature.

Thankfully, Maine has an abundance of woods and waters, and amazing natural places to explore that can provide an antidote to these problems. Building more trails and maintaining existing ones is a simple way we can make sure more people, including youth, can easily access outdoor spaces.

All people should have the opportunity for positive experiences outdoors, regardless of where they live, their social or economic status. The Maine trails bond will provide Maine youth with safe, accessible outdoor spaces where they can integrate, connect and contribute to their community. A summary comment from a student with us in The Forks said it well: “Thank you all for welcoming me into the outdoor community. I am so tired, but my soul is rejuvenated.”