The extensive -- and growing -- system of multipurpose, nonmotorized trails in Western Pennsylvania owes a lot to volunteers who help to build and maintain them.
Perhaps no one knows that better than veteran bicyclists Mary Shaw and Roy Weil, who have ridden -- and written -- about almost all of those trails.
The Squirrel Hill couple, who pedal between 1,500 to 2,000 miles a year on trails and low-traffic roads, have become more involved in trail development and long-range trail planning all over Pennsylvania.
"The key to this whole trail system is the efforts of volunteers," Shaw said. "They come with time and energy. We wanted to set up something that makes it easier for them to do their work so that they're not stalled or sidetracked because they need tools, material and supplies."
The can-do couple sat down in December with representatives of The Pittsburgh Foundation, the organization that since 1945 has worked "to improve the quality of life in the Pittsburgh region by evaluating and addressing community issues, promoting charitable giving, and connecting donors to the needs of the community."
It said "many generous individuals have invested in the community by establishing [more than] 1,000 funds at the foundation, benefiting a wide variety of nonprofit organizations and community needs."
In addition to a start-up donation for the Trail Volunteer Fund, Shaw and Weil are donating the proceeds from their popular book, "FreeWheeling Easy in Western Pennsylvania."
The fund's motto says it all:
"No worthy project with willing volunteers should founder for lack of tools or materials."
As the formal donor advisers to the fund, the couple didn't waste any time bringing grant proposals to the foundation for its approval. The foundation acted on them quickly.
As a result, three grant projects are under way. And as of today, a fourth project has been approved. Let's take them in order, and then alert trail groups about two deadlines -- one Thursday and the other June 1 -- to apply for grants ranging in size from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars.
The first grant went to the Montour Trail Council for safety improvements at the intersection of Routes 50 and 980 near Venice in Washington County. Materials have been purchased that volunteers will use to create a crosswalk and a stairway/ramp that will eliminate a half-mile stretch of bicycling on the narrow shoulders of Route 50.
The second grant went to the Butler Freeport Community Trail to help develop the 4.5 mile segment from Bonniebrook Road to Father Manderino Park in Butler.
The third grant was made to a Girl Scout Gold Award Project to buy materials for a historical plaque the scouts will develop and install at Herman. The fourth grant will be made today to the Somerset County Rails to Trails Association to buy safety fencing that volunteers will install on the approaches to the bridge that crosses Scratch Hill Road.
Shaw and Weil emphasized that they urge people to contribute their time and money to their local trail organizations first before donating to the fund.
"We don't want to be in competition with local trail groups," Shaw said. "We encourage people to contribute their time, money and effort to their own groups. They usually have monthly work sessions and that's when volunteers can go and help."
A trail organizations can apply for grant by providing its name, the location and scope of the project, an approximate budget, an explanation of what volunteers will do and the start and finish dates of the project.