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 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act in 2018, we’re taking a look back at the history and growth of the National Trails System, which encompasses 11 National Historic Trails, 19 National Scenic Trails, and more than 1,279 National Recreation Trails, plus more than 2,000 rail trails.

February 1965: President Lyndon Johnson spoke on the “Conservation and Preservation of Natural Beauty.” In this address to Congress, the President focused attention on the conservation and restoration of natural beauty in America. His address focused on clean water, parks in urban areas, the establishment of certain national seashore and national recreation areas, and, of particular note, trails.

December 1966: Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, formed a committee led by the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (then an agency within the Department of the Interior) to study existing trails in the U.S. and how well they served the American public, and to recommend Federal legislation that would bring into existence a cohesive national trails system. This committee’s report, entitled Trails for America, was published in December, 1966.

October 2, 1968: National Trails System Act was signed by President Johnson, establishing three different types 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 Recreation Trails were designated by the Secretary of the Interior. National Recreation Trails range from under a mile to nearly 500 miles, and are now found in all 50 States.

1973: Backcountry Horsemen of America founded to represent the interests of trail riders.

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

February 1976: Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act passed, which deregulated the U.S. railroad industry and included the creation of a rail-trail grant program.

November 10, 1978: National Historic Trail designation was added as part of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, and the first four National Historic Trails were established: the Oregon, Mormon Pioneer, Iditarod, and Lewis and Clark National Historic Trails. This act also established the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.

1983: Railbanking amendment added to the National Trails System Act. Railbanking is a method by which rail corridors that would otherwise be abandoned can be preserved through interim conversion to a trail. It allows a railroad to remove all of its equipment from a corridor, and to turn the corridor over to any qualified private organization or public agency that has agreed to maintain 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 National Trails System founded. It connects member nonprofit trail organizations and federal agency partners to further the protection, completion, and stewardship of the 30 National Scenic and Historic Trails within the National Trails System.

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

Wildlife Refuges, National Parks, Bureau of Land Management areas, National Forests, designated Wilderness Areas, and communities across the country. Trails are available for hiking, horseback riding, biking, winter activities, boating, and motorized recreation. Volunteers contribute millions of hours supporting 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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