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Backcountry Trail Standards: The User Perspective

Researchers on national forests in Illinois and Indiana determine how users of wilderness trails perceived trail impact and how acceptable these conditions were.

By Dr. John Burde - presented at the National Trails Symposium, November 16, 1998

One of the most widely used techniques in recreation managemant is Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC). LAC utilizes standards to define how much impact is acceptable in a given situation. LAC can be a useful technique in trail management, especially in maintenance. If standards were available to managers, maintenance staff and funding could be allocated to trail segments where trail standards are exceeded. Most standards for trails are usually construction standards, describing maximum trail width and slope, surfacing, and brushing. Standards that describe when trail impacts are no longer acceptable are essentially non-existent. Instead, managers use their training and experience to decide how to allocate trail maintenance resources.

If trail standards don't exist, how should they be defined for use in LAC? One answer might be to look at how trail users perceive trail impacts. We decided to determine how users of wilderness trails on national forests in Illinois and Indiana perceived trail impact and to determine how acceptable these conditions were.

Methods. Our study included hikers, backpackers, horseback riders and mountain bikers that use the seven wilderness areas on the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois and the C. Deam Wilderness Area on the Hoosier National Forest in Indiana. Visitors were contacted both on site and at interest group meetings. Each was shown 24 photographs of trail scenes with varying trail widths, depths, and amount of surface rocks and mud on the trail. Additionally, trail users were asked to describe how they felt about 9 trail impacts as described in the literature. Information about their typical trail use was also collected. Sample size was 247. In addition, 39 trail managers were included in the study.

Results. Analysis of the responses to the photos showed that there was no relationship between acceptance of impact and trail width and depth. Both relationships were inverse; neither were significant. Conversely, trails that were primarily muddy were significantly less accectable than those that were dry.

Questionnaire results revealed that the least acceptable trail conditions were muddy surfaces, deeply eroded trails, and deeply entrenched trails. These results were consistent across all user groups. Trail managers considered therse same factors to be the least acceptable.

Conclusions. For wilderness in Illinois and Indiana, management should focus on water conditions related to trails. Our results are related to soil type and climatic factors, as well as use characteristics. Horse riding has become a major factor in creating trail impact and may have to be restricted. Results suggest that trail standards will have to be regional in nature. Our study, repeated in an arid environment would likely yield significantly different results.

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