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MUD, MANURE AND MONEY: Fixing the Trails in Indiana

Identifying the problems leads to a public involvement process and changes for the better.
Presented at the 15th National Trails Symposium , Redding, California, September 21-24, 2000.

By Les Wadzinski

Map of Indiana

Abstract: As a state with less than 4% of the land base in public ownership, the demand for outdoor recreation opportunities in Indiana is extremely intense. Trail users made up of horse riders, mountain bikers, hikers, and off-highway vehicle users compete for scarce resources, thus presenting formable challenges to the agencies charged with providing such opportunities. A variety of trail planning and management efforts helped to meet these challenges.

Introduction

Indiana is a busy place with lots of people, and is certainly famous for many things. And the state does have its share of scenic wonders and offers the usual outdoor recreation opportunities. Unfortunately, this fine state ranks near the bottom in the category of acres of public land. For example, all of Indiana's public recreation land (902,132 acres) amounts to less than half of a single national park such as Yellowstone. Needless to say, the imbalance of a lot of people wanting to use a little land creates management challenges. This paper will focus on management problems regarding trails and efforts to deal with those problems.

The Problems

  • Scattered ownership: The Hoosier National Forest is a relatively small forest with approximately 200,000 acres of land, 13,000 of which are designated as Indiana's only wilderness. Unlike its western counterparts, Indiana's meager public land creates a checkerboard ownership pattern that is not conducive to the linear needs of trails. An additional issue is that of the conflicts arising from the many neighbors existing due to a large "boundary edge".
  • Trail density: Previously uncontrolled trail use created a labyrinth of user made trails resulting in over 600 miles of trail on this small forest. The trail density in the Deam Wilderness rivaled that of New York's Central Park.
  • Environmental damage: This same uncontrolled use resulted in severe soil erosion as user made trails appeared on steep slopes and fragile soils.
  • User conflicts: Off highway vehicle (OHV) use was banned from the Hoosier National Forest in a 1987 decision. Horses quickly took their place, along with the recent newcomer, mountain bikes. Hikers felt squeezed out as they hiked in horse manure, mountain bikers were lost in the mud, and OHV enthusiasts continued to feel discriminated against.
  • Declining budgets: As all agencies felt the pinch, so did the Hoosier National Forest with few dollars available for badly needed trail maintenance. There was certainly not enough to maintain the 600 miles of trail that appeared on the Forest.
  • Agency confusion: The public was constantly confused as they wandered from the changing rules from one agency jurisdiction to another.

What to Do?

At first no action was taken as managers tried to get a grip on the problem... or hoped it would go away. As might be expected the problem persisted, so a direct approach was tried. This involved the 13,000 acre Deam Wilderness where the Forest Service announced that trails would be cut back to 60 miles, down from 109. The public outcry was significant, and the policy was rescinded.

The Forest then embarked on two concurrent planning efforts, one for the Deam Wilderness, and one for the rest of the Forest. A process known as the Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) was used as another way of analyzing carrying capacity. This process looks at social and resource conditions resulting from recreation use, then determines what conditions are acceptable. Standards are developed to measure the conditions and changes, and management actions determined to achieve the desired condition. The process was modified for the Forest-wide trail effort, as LAC did not lend itself well to linear planning situations.

The LAC process provided the basis for an extensive public involvement effort lasting almost two years. The Forest's primary guiding document, the Land and Resource Management Plan, was amended to reflect the resulting new trail guidance. A Trail Implementation Schedule followed that refined the new guidelines and established a priority for upcoming trail projects.

The Changes

Armed with information from the public involvement process, the Forest implemented several changes, many of which represented somewhat drastic changes from historical management practices. Approximately 200 miles of trail were designated as official trails, and all others declared off limits to bikers and horses. For the first time bike and horse riders were restricted to designated trails only. The prohibition on OHV use remained. Density limits were established for the various management areas on the Forest. Also, future trail projects were identified to stop the endless requests for more trails by special interest groups. This big picture approach allowed the trail system to be analyzed in a forest-wide context, thus eliminating difficult piecemeal decisions. Due to the lack of available land and declining budgets, most trails were designated as multiple use trails that would be shared by horses, bikes, and hikers. For non-wilderness trails, trail standards were clarified and allowed the use of wider tread to facilitate maintenance by mechanized equipment. Finally, to accommodate adjacent landowners that wished to access a legal trail, a procedure was developed where they could obtain a special use permit to construct their own connector trail.

These changes were supported by several efforts. As money became available, trails were systematically upgraded to improve drainage and harden the trail surface. Each trail was mapped using Global Positioning System (GPS), and became a layer on the Forest's Geographic Information System (GIS). Recreation Opportunity Guides were developed to serve as an informational handout and simple map for each trail. Trail information and maps were placed on the Forest's website (www.fs.fed.us/r9/hoosier).

Major trailheads were improved with the installation of directional signs, bulletin boards, and improvement of parking surfaces. The trails themselves were all marked with cheap and easy to install plastic dots, and are currently being replaced with better markers. A trail group that successfully secured a National Forest Foundation grant provided a much improved marking system on a major trail. Finally, a partnership with a local backpacking store resulted in a high quality trail map produced by a national trail map company.

One additional change implemented after the public involvement process is that of the recreation fee demonstration program. The Hoosier National Forest is participating in this pilot program, and has temporary authority to charge a fee for trail use. Most of the funds collected are to be returned to the Forest for trail maintenance. Under this program, the high impact users, horse and bike riders, pay a $3 daily or $25 annual fee to ride Hoosier National Forest trails. Users can purchase trail tags from local stores that sell them on a consignment basis.

Agency Coordination

All the above efforts occurred concurrently with a trails planning effort by the IDNR known as Trails 2000. As much as possible, the two agencies attempted to coordinate these efforts and be consistent. For example, IDNR participated in the LAC process, and Forest Service staff contributed during the Trails 200 process. Trail standards were compared, and kept as consistent as possible. The Forest Service drew upon IDNR expertise for the fee program since they already had been charging trail fees for several years. IDNR was also very helpful in sharing user survey results and Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP) data. The two agencies have also coordinated on overlapping trail projects such as planning for the cross-state Knobstone Trail and the cross-country American Discovery Trail.

So How's it Working?

As with all things in the world there is no perfect answer. Some of these actions have shown positive results while others have not. The new trail maps, website, GPS effort, trailhead work, trail marking, and so on have all have been very beneficial to the user. More trails are now properly located to minimize environmental damage, and are properly drained and hardened to withstand the high impact use. Some users don't like the wider trails, graveled tread, or the multiple use concepts, while others are content. Needless to say, some folks are not happy with the fee program, although compliance has been high. The income from this program has already benefited trail users in the form of new trailhead parking, water for stock, trailhead restrooms, and other trail enhancements. The fee program also has the added benefit of providing badly needed use data.

Conclusion

Overall the effort has been successful. The Forest has a much better handle on the trail program, environmental concerns have decreased, the system is much more user friendly, and positive coordination with IDNR remains. However, much work remains to be completed. There still exists a backlog of heavy trail maintenance, and each user group continues to request more trails. And as always, conditions change, new data becomes available, and technology provides new options. Land managers must keep this in mind and realize the job of planning and managing is indeed an ongoing process.

For more information: Les Wadzinski, Recreation Program Manage, USDA Forest Service, Hoosier National Forest, 811 Constitution Avenue, Bedford, IN 47421 (812) 277-3595

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