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Water Trails Partnership reports on Developing Water Trails in Pennsylvania

Water trails are an important part of recreation and conservation activities in Pennsylvania and they contribute to the health of local communities. This is a report of the PA Water Trails Partnership to expand and strengthen PA’s system of water trails.

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From Pennsylvania Water Trails Partnership

Map of Pennsylvania

"The water trail vision is best fulfilled when global principles, augmented by local purposes, guide trail development and use. Successful water trails have used the following Principles as a framework for the development of their definitive trail design and management plan." —North American Water Trails, Inc.∗

photo: river and city
Rivers and estruaries provide great opportunities for water trails and boating access

Guiding Principles and Guidelines

The PA Water Trails Partnership has adopted eight principles to guide our work promoting and
developing water trails in Pennsylvania. The principles are intended to promote the potential of
water trail projects. Water trail projects can have a positive impact on local communities by
building an ethic of stewardship, bringing new people into the community and providing
recreational resources for local residents.

Pennsylvania Water Trail Principles

1. Partnerships
2. Stewardship
3. Volunteerism
4. Education
5. Conservation
6. Community Vitality
7. Diversity
8. Wellness & Wellbeing

We have also developed guidelines for fulfilling each principle and provided project examples and resources to get more information. When considered together, the principles and guidelines should provide a “how to” manual for developing a water trail. Some elements may not be relevant to your specific experience, but there should be something in each principle that is important for each project. The Partners encourage you to use each of the eight principles in the development of your water trail.

A water trail is the product of partnerships among an array of governmental and non-governmental entities. With volunteers as the key supporters and advocates of the trail, partnerships are developed among government land managing agencies, private property owners, government regulatory agencies, user groups, and local businesses. Together, these groups can create and maintain and promote a successful water trail with broad-based and long-term support.

Partnership Guidelines

-Establish a Core Group - Form a strong core group of similarly inclined individuals and representatives of organizations who are keenly interested in establishing a water trail and will share in the workload.

-Form an Advisory Committee - Create an advisory, or steering, committee composed of the core group and the initial key partners to generate a long-term development and management plan for the trail and if appropriate, formally establish a permanent water trail organization.

-Identify Stakeholders - Identify all individuals and groups in your community that could have an interest in or be affected by the creation of the water trail. They are your stakeholders. Some stakeholders may become partners—those who will work jointly on shared goals. Others may become sponsors—those who support the trail with funds, resources, or expertise. Some may become opponents of the trail. To be successful, you must understand and address the interests and concerns of all of these stakeholders.

-Local Government Notification - As part of the public process it is highly recommended that water trail organizers work with the local governments that are traversed by the trail. The purpose is both to notify and involve them in the development of the water trail. Local support is critical. Water trails benefit local governments so it is only logical that they should be involved. Also, if the local government is not involved at the outset of the project there may be unforeseen conflicts as the trail goes into development.

-Public Planning Process - In order to designate a water trail, there must be a public process. This includes multiple public meetings that are publicly advertised. The purpose of the meetings is to collect information about the water trail (access points, amenities, etc.) and to gain support for the water trail.

-Create a Vision - Develop a vision statement that describes the desired future condition of the water trail and how the group wants to proceed. Members of the core group may have different ideas on what the trail actually should be. Reaching a consensus on a vision statement will help build a sense of ownership and commitment.

-Define the Mission - Create a mission statement that defines the role of your group in reaching your vision for the water trail. This statement can help keep the group focused and introduce and explain it to others. The mission statement should be clear and concise—ideally, no more than 25 words.

-Establish Partnerships - Use the vision and mission statements to establish partnerships with local governments, community organizations, state natural resource agencies, private property owners, and user groups such as paddlers’ clubs and anglers. Partners should be willing to share in the responsibility for getting the actual work done.

-Communicate with Stakeholders - Conduct face-to-face interviews with community leaders, meet with focus groups, mail a survey to all landowners that may be affected by the proposed water trail, conduct public forums and meet one-on-one with water trail opponents. Develop a variety of ways to communicate with the different kinds of stakeholders.

#2- STEWARDSHIP – Leaving No Trace!

Water trails promote minimum-impact practices that ensure a sustainable future for waterways and adjacent lands. Water trails embrace the Leave No Trace Code of Outdoor Ethics that promotes the responsible use and enjoyment of the outdoors. A trail user, who understands their potential impacts to water, soil, vegetation and wildlife, and their impact on other trail users, will be a better caretaker. When users learn to protect and restore areas along the trail, they may be inclined to do likewise in their own communities and backyards.

Stewardship Guidelines

-Stewardship & Conservation Plan – Generally the process can include: 1. Assess the current water trail situation, 2. Develop a future vision for the water trail, 3. Develop water trail management principles,4. Develop a water trail stewardship and conservation action plan, 5. Determine future organizational structure for future water trail management. The plan should inventory significant viewsheds, landscapes and critical habitats and develop a plan for riparian buffer protection.

-Maintain Facilities - Clean and repair parking areas, launch ramps, campsites, fire rings, toilets, portage trails, signs, exhibits, and other facilities. Establish a regular maintenance schedule and keep records of repairs and replacements.

-Conduct Cleanup Campaigns - Organize public campaigns to clean up trash along the waterway at least twice a year, before and after the busy season.

-Monitor Water Quality - Enlist volunteers to establish and conduct an ongoing water-quality monitoring program. Alert officials about illegal dumping, floodplain encroachments, and damage to natural, archeological, and historical resources.

-Promote Species Awareness – Promote drying of equipment to prevent transferring invasive species from one waterway to another. “Clean Your Gear”

Resources and Project Examples:

#3- VOLUNTEERISM – Experiencing the Joy of Involvement

Most water trails are created, promoted, and maintained through the energy and dedication of local citizens, working individually and through organizations to support the trail. Community involvement and volunteerism are the keys to developing a sense of trail stewardship, promoting the trail within the community, encouraging respect for the trail's natural and cultural heritage and ensuring that local governments support the trail's existence. Through love of place, and of good times, volunteers bring hard work and celebration to the water trail community.

Volunteerism Guidelines

-Management & Stewardship Commitment – There must be a local group who is willing to sign a Water Trail Partnership Agreement with the PA Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC). The agreement is for a length of five years and includes specific agreements about signage, mapping, roles of the local group and the PFBC, stewardship goals, etc.

-Establish a Formal Organization – Consider establishing, after gaining sufficient community support, a permanent organization to implement the development and management plans and to carry out fundraising and personnel initiatives, including the hiring of a professional staff. Members of the advisory committee may well become officers and directors of the new organization. An alternative to establishing a formal organization would be to have one of your partners “adopt” the water trail as an ongoing project.

-Recruit Volunteers – Enlist volunteers to carry out day-to-day stewardship tasks and special development projects. Your organization cannot succeed without a solid corps of volunteers. Use their expertise so their tasks are meaningful. Recognize their contributions.

Resources and Project Examples:

#4- EDUCATION – Learning by Experience

Through comprehensive trail guides, signage, public outreach, and informative programs, water trail organizations encourage awareness of the natural, cultural, and historical attributes of the trail. Serving as outdoor classrooms, water trails teach through seeing, listening, touching – experiencing.

Education Guidelines

-Educating the Public – Building and expanding community support for the water trail is a never ending process and should be considered an essential element of development of the trail. Provide a variety of interpretive educational programs to inform both children and adults about the waterway. An informed citizenry will value and champion the trail and become active in stewardship activities.

-Develop a Marketing & Promotion Plan – Focus efforts by developing a specific action plan for promoting your water trail. Define the audience that you want to attract and identify how to get information to them. A well thought out plan of attack will help in reaching everyone that you want to be involved in your local water trail.

Resources and Project Examples:

#5- CONSERVATION – Protecting our Natural and Cultural Heritage

Water trail activities support the conservation of the aquatic ecosystem, contiguous lands, and important cultural artifacts. Trail builders and activists are a respected constituency advocating for resource protection and participating in resource restoration. The water trail community is a watchdog in prevention of environmentally harmful acts, striving to sustain the natural integrity of the trail and preserve the quality of the trail experience.

Conservation Guidelines

-Protecting the Resource – The water trail’s success now hinges on keeping the waterway as pristine as possible or improving its condition through a variety of conservation programs ranging from cleanup campaigns to habitat restoration projects.

-Conservation and Education – At all times, the water trail organization must be vigilant about protecting—and, better yet, enhancing—the natural qualities of the waterway itself. By initiating a series of conservation projects and education programs, the organization not only protects the waterway but gains a cadre of water trail supporters.

Resources and Project Examples:

#6- COMMUNITY VITALITY – Connecting People and Places

A water trail is a network of recreational and educational opportunities. Hiking trails, bikeways, greenways, museums, historic sites, parks and preserves are connected by water trails creating frontiers for exploration, discovery and enrichment. The connections build a sense of place and bind citizens in a love for their community. Water trails link families who grow together through work and play on the trail.

Community Vitality Guidelines

-Drafting a Water Trail Plan - Planning and developing a water trail requires maintaining a careful balance between protecting the resource and responding to the needs of landowners, trail users, and the community. You have established a steering committee or formal organization, talked with the stakeholders, established partnerships, recruited volunteers, and started raising funds. Now it is time to study the evidence and make some thoughtful choices about the character of the trail.

-Connecting to Land Based Recreation- Make strong connections to land-based recreation, natural and historic resources. By emphasizing land-based points of interest in water trail publications and information water trails provide another way to bring people into local communities. Connections can be strengthened through shared facilities (i.e. shared parking lots for both land and water trails) and Trail Town development.

-Interpretive Plan – An interpretive master plan emphasizes the natural, cultural and stewardship components of a water trail. Plans typically provide information about under-represented themes and they can be used to encourage greater personal involvement by telling the stories of the water trail. Plans guide future implementation of wayside exhibits and other interpretive materials.

Resources and Project Examples:

  • Susquehanna Greenway Interpretive Plan –
  • River Towns – Lancaster York Heritage Regions -
  • PA Wilds
  • Chesapeake Bay Gateway Network Interpretive Planning Assistance -
  • Case Studies of Water Trail Impacts on Rural Communities
  • Northern Forest Canoe Trail –
    - Trip Planner
    - Baseline Economic Impact Study
    - Art and Community Landscapes

#7-DIVERSITY– Providing Opportunities for all

Water trails are non-exclusive. They benefit the able-bodied and the disabled, the young and the old, the disadvantaged and the advantaged. Water trails welcome all those that want to respectfully enjoy and appreciate the trail experience. Through shared work and play, tolerance and understanding are fostered. Broad-based participation in trail activities is achieved through affirmative outreach and recruitment.

Diversity Guidelines

-Outreach Programming – Many water trail managers are paddling enthusiasts who have already “come to the river”. To enhance the positive long-term impacts of water trails it is important to go beyond the usual suspects to get as many people involved s possible. Project managers should consider developing their own programs or partnering with other organizations who can assist getting people out onto the water.

Resources and Project Examples:

#8-WELLNESS AND WELLBEING– Caring for Self and Others

Water trails are wholesome; fresh air and exercise bring fitness and health to trail users. While actively promoting these benefits, water trail users need reliable and accurate safety information and training to responsibly enjoy and appreciate water trails. Safe use requires a commitment to safe design and sound management. Awareness, education and safety skills training promote the wellness and well being of all water trail users.

Wellness and Wellbeing Guidelines

-Gather Data - Conduct a feasibility study. Identify needs, problems, and opportunities. Determine the funds and other resources required to establish and maintain the trail. Create a development plan and budget. Your best case for your trail system will be one that articulates benefits to the community.

-Raise Funds - Develop a fundraising plan based on projects in your development plan. Focus first on obtaining contributions of money, services, products, and labor from the local community. Then, extend your fundraising efforts to a larger, regional audience and to state and federal agencies and foundations that provide grants.

-Safety Information - Managers of water trails have a responsibility to provide safety information and to warn of hazards. No waterway is completely safe. However, by providing pertinent information about the waterway and good safety tips, hazardous conditions can be addressed appropriately. For example, users may be asked to portage around a particularly hazardous area.

-Establishing Access - Over the years local boaters commonly create informal sites to get onto and off the waterway. Some of them make ideal accesses for the trail while others might be dangerous, awkwardly placed, and unevenly spaced for general public use. You probably will have to develop some new launch sites and parking areas and you may have to create some campsites.

-Producing Guide Materials - All but the most adventurous of boaters want a map of the water trail and information about sites—and hazards—they will encounter along the way. They want to know the locations of launching and parking areas, campsites, picnic areas, toilets, and other facilities. You can convey this information, safety tips, and management policies through map folders, guidebooks, signs, and orientation exhibits and websites. Properly written and designed, they can greatly enhance the water trail experience.

-Developing Trail Facilities - Facilities that are customarily built along a water trail fall into three general categories: access, day use, and camping. The size and appearance of these facilities may well be determined by the availability of funds, the setting, and the expertise of the construction crew.

Resources and Project Examples:

  • Wildlands Conservancy - Walk for Wellness
  • Wyoming Valley Wellness Trails Partnership
  • PFBC Technical Guidance Program and Safe Paddling Tips
  • PANA – Keystone Active Zone & nrg Outdoors Program

For more information on water trails, visit

Water trails index page

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