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The National Trails System

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Congress passed the National Trails System Act in 1968, establishing a nationwide system of scenic, historic, and recreation trails.

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National Trails System facts and history

 

This is the "Decade for the National Trails" leading to the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System Act in 2018. This Act opened the door to federal involvement in trails of all types, from city centers to remote backcountry. Virtually every trail in the country has benefited from the Act and many trail initiatives over the last 40 years can find their roots in it.

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Today the National Trails System totals over 60,000 miles in all 50 states (longer than the Interstate Highway System) and is comprised of:

According to the National Trails System Annual Report for FY 2009 "These trails offer unmatched quality of life experiences in outdoor recreation, education, scenic transportation, and access to the precious natural and cultural resources that define us as a Nation. And, essential to all these efforts is an unwavering, impressive, and ever growing cadre of volunteers."

The National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, USDA Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and US Army Corps of Engineers— play key roles in administering and managing these trails, while the Federal Highway Administration has been an important source of funding for them.

Traveling a National Trail brings you into direct contact with adventure, history, heritage, community, and nature. National Trails provide countless opportunities for healthful recreation in the fight against obesity. The National Trails System embodies many strands of America's natural, historic, and cultural heritage. On Scenic, Historic, and Recreation Trails you experience the great diversity of landscapes and ecosystems that comprise this great American land. Historic trails enable you to experience the rich tapestry of cultures and peoples that comprise our Nation and the many stories of pioneer travel, exploration, and struggles for civil and religious freedom that shaped our history (Native American, Hawaiian, Inuit, Hispanic, Anglo, African-American and Asian).

Congressionally authorized National Scenic and Historic Trails are complex partnerships

photo of child at tunner mouth

"Scaring the Monsters from the Tunnel," Elroy-Sparta National

Recreation Trail and Rail Trail, WI (photo by Greg Walther)

Various Federal agencies— primarily the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, USDA Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and US Army Corps of Engineers— play key roles in administering and managing these trails, while the Federal Highway Administration has been an important source of funding for them.

States are essential partners— especially where an entire trail is within one state as in Alaska, Hawaii, Florida, and Wisconsin— in helping to manage extensive sections of trails and, in Florida and Wisconsin, in acquiring rights-of-way and lands for them. The scenic and historic trails connect over 300 state parks.

However, the bulk of the work of developing and maintaining these trails is done by volunteers coordinated by dozens of dedicated nonprofit trail organizations.

A hallmark of the National Trails System is people-based stewardship of significant national natural and cultural resources. Volunteers— not paid professionals— often take the lead in nearly all aspects of trail resources inventorying and database construction, planning, development, interpretation, preservation, and maintenance. In 1968 this was a new way to care for public resources, and 40 years later it still is innovative and routinely leads to creative leveraging many times over of the Federal funding provided for these trails by Congress. In 2006 volunteers organized and guided by the non-profit partner trail organizations contributed more than 687,000 hours valued at $12,400,000 to help develop and sustain the national scenic and historic trails and the natural and cultural resources along them. This people-based approach to public land stewardship also involves communities linked by these trails so that the National Trails System has become a "culture of people-based community conservation."

The National Trails System Act was signed into law October 2, 1968, yet forty years later only the initial two trails—; the Appalachian and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trails— are fully available for the public to experience from end to end. Despite recent progress in opening new miles on the Continental Divide, Florida, and Ice Age National Scenic Trails through the generosity of private land owners, organizations, corporations, State agencies, and other entities; the other six National Scenic Trails and all of the National Historic Trails are still, after many years of effort by citizen volunteers and public agency trail managers, in various stages of completion.

Many miles of right-of-way need to be acquired for the public to be able to fully enjoy the National Scenic Trails and many sites and remnants remain to be preserved and fully interpreted for the public to fully understand and appreciate the National Historic Trails. Properly preserved Historic Trail resources evoke a sense of the past that helps visitors to appreciate how the events of long ago forged the way to the world of today. Although steady progress has been made to transform these trails from lines on maps to places in the landscape for people to learn from and enjoy, at the current pace it will be decades before most of them will be fully available for public use.

Update on the National Trails System

In December 2006, six Federal agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) pledging to work closely together to enhance visitor satisfaction, to coordinate trailwide administration and site-specific management, to protect resources, to promote cultural values, to foster cooperative relationships, to share technical expertise, and to fund lands and resources associated with the National Trails. The MOU continues until 2016 as an active partnership of the Federal Interagency Council on Trails, an interagency group that has met since 1969 to coordinate activities under the authorities of the National Trails System Act (16 U.S.C. 1241-1251).

Fiscal year 2009 started with the 40th anniversary of the National Trails System on October 2, 2008. While a few of us took time out to commemorate this landmark date, dozens of Federal staff, thousands of volunteers, and uncounted members of the traveling public helped build and enjoy the various components of the National Trails System. Just after the 40th anniversary, enactment of P.L. 111-11 (the Public Lands Omnibus Act of 2009) expanded the Trails System from 26 to 30 national scenic and national historic trails (NSTs and NHTs). P.L. 111-11 added four new trails – the Arizona, New England, and Pacific Northwest NSTs, and the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route NHT. In addition, the Trail of Tears NHT was more than doubled in length with additional routes. Among many other notable features of P.L. 111-11 was the organic legislation for the National Landscape Conservation System within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under which administration and management of NSTs and NHTs occurs.

For more information on the National Trails System and its 40-Year Anniversary:

More resources for National Scenic and Historic Trails

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