50th Anniversary of the National Trails System Act

The historical events that led us to a robust nationwide movement for trails of all kinds

by Leigh Schmidt, Partnership for the National Trails System (PNTS)


As we commemorate the 50thanniversary of the NationalTrails System Act in 2018, we’re takinga look back at the history and growthof the National Trails System, whichencompasses 11 National HistoricTrails, 19 National Scenic Trails, andmore than 1,279 National RecreationTrails, plus more than 2,000 rail trails.

February 1965: President LyndonJohnson spoke on the “Conservationand Preservation of Natural Beauty.” Inthis address to Congress, the Presidentfocused attention on the conservationand restoration of natural beauty inAmerica. His address focused on cleanwater, parks in urban areas, the establishment of certain national seashoreand national recreation areas, and, ofparticular note, trails.

December 1966: Secretary of theInterior, Stewart Udall, formed a committee led by the Bureau of OutdoorRecreation (then an agency within theDepartment of the Interior) to studyexisting trails in the U.S. and how wellthey served the American public, andto recommend Federal legislation thatwould bring into existence a cohesivenational trails system. This committee’sreport, entitled Trails for America, waspublished in December, 1966.

October 2, 1968: National TrailsSystem Act was signed by PresidentJohnson, establishing three differenttypes of trails: National Scenic Trails,National Recreation Trails, and Connecting-and-Side Trails. It also established the Appalachian and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trails.

President Lyndon Johnson with a map of the new National Trails System.

President Lyndon Johnson with a map of the new National Trails System.

1971: The first National RecreationTrails were designated by the Secretaryof the Interior. National Recreation Trailsrange from under a mile to nearly 500miles, and are now found in all 50 States.

1973: Backcountry Horsemen ofAmerica founded to represent theinterests of trail riders.

1976: American Hiking Society found-ed. As the national voice for America’shikers, American Hiking Society pro-motes and protects foot trails, sur-rounding natural areas, and the hikingexperience.

February 1976: Railroad Revitalizationand Regulatory Reform Act passed,which deregulated the U.S. railroadindustry and included the creation of arail-trail grant program.

November 10, 1978: National HistoricTrail designation was added as part ofthe National Parks and Recreation Act of1978, and the first four National HistoricTrails were established: the Oregon,Mormon Pioneer, Iditarod, and Lewisand Clark National Historic Trails. Thisact also established the ContinentalDivide National Scenic Trail.

1983: Railbanking amendment addedto the National Trails System Act.Railbanking is a method by which railcorridors that would otherwise be abandoned can be preserved throughinterim conversion to a trail. It allows arailroad to remove all of its equipmentfrom a corridor, and to turn the corridorover to any qualified private organization or public agency that has agreed tomaintain it for future rail use.

1986: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy founded to promote rail trails and the creation of more walkable, bikeable communities in America. At that time there were 250 known miles of open rail trails. Today there are more than 23,000 miles in the U.S.

1988: American Trails founded. American Trails is a national nonprofit organization working on behalf of all trail interests. American Trails members want to create and protect America’s network of interconnected trails.

October 1988: President Ronald Reagan signs the National Trails System Improvements Act of 1988, securing the government’s interest in federally granted rights-of-way.

1990: National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council founded to pro- mote responsible OHV recreation management and resource protection.

Trail stewards of the future on the Ridgeline National Recreation Trail, OR; photo by Elissa Gavette

Trail stewards of the future on the Ridgeline National Recreation Trail, OR; photo by Elissa Gavette

1997: Partnership for the NationalTrails System founded. It connectsmember nonprofit trail organizationsand federal agency partners to furtherthe protection, completion, and stewardship of the 30 National Scenic andHistoric Trails within the National TrailsSystem.

America’s National Trails System touch-es every state, stretching thousands ofmiles and connecting with National

Wildlife Refuges, National Parks,Bureau of Land Management areas,National Forests, designated WildernessAreas, and communities across thecountry. Trails are available for hiking,horseback riding, biking, winter activities, boating, and motorized recreation.Volunteers contribute millions of hourssupporting the trails in a myriad of ways.

Visit www.trails50.org/volunteer to #findyourtrail.

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About the Author

Leigh Schmidt joined PNTS in 2017 as the Trails 50 Communications Coordinator. She will be bringing together trail partners from across the country to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act of 1968.

Leigh studied English and Journalism at James Madison University in the Shenandoah Valley, where she first discovered a love of the outdoors. She has worked with a variety of non profit organizations, with roles including event coordination, education, marketing, and community outreach. She is excited to bring that experience to the National Trails System.

In her free time she can be found volunteering, hiking, and planning her family’s next National Park trip.

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