Planning Trails with Wildlife in Mind - Introduction

This handbook will help trail planners and builders balance the benefits of creating trails and being stewards of nature, especially wildlife.

by American Trails Staff

Handbook purpose and organization

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Wildlife and Trails Primer gives an overview of important wildlife and other environmental issues and suggests a range of approaches to planning trails with wildlife in mind

Chapter 3: Wildlife and Trail Planning Checklist is a sequence of wildlife-related questions and possible steps to consider in planning a trail

Chapter 4: Case Studies presents specific trail projects and the wildlife-related lessons learned in the process of planning each trail

Chapter 5: Sources of Information identifies a wide range of information sources, including websites, data bases, publications, and people

Chapter 6: Glossary defines wildlife terms likely to be encountered in further reading

Benefits of trails

Trails make many positive contributions to conserving nature. They can help:

  • restore degraded stream corridors and other habitats in the process of trail building;
  • guide recreationists away from sensitive wildlife habitat and into more adaptable settings;
  • educate people about wildlife issues and appropriate behavior in the outdoors; and
  • build broad constituencies for wildlife conservation by putting people in contact with nature.

Trails affect wildlife in a range of ways

Typically, the impacts to wildlife from trails aren’t as great as those from intensive development. More and more, however, we realize that— no matter how carefully we tread and no matter how much we desire to “leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures”— building trails can effect wildlife. By entering an area, we may change the ecology of a system that is complex and frequently hard to understand.

Sometimes the effects of building and using a trail are minor and fleeting. Other times they may be more substantial and long-lasting.

Trails can be effective management tools

photo credit: Holly Mandarich, Unsplash

Let’s take a typical situation. Land managers intentionally choose not to build a trail to a particularly sensitive area, perhaps a heron rookery. People hear of the rookery and make their own paths to it. Many of the visitors are careful in how and when they approach the herons.

Before long, however, many paths braid through the trees and planners are pressured into doing something. They decide to harden one of the trails and build an observation deck at an appropriate distance from the herons. Finally, with great effort— over many years— most of the social trails are revegetated.

Rules of thumb in the face of scientific uncertainty

In situations such as the heron rookery, scientists say the specific effects of trails on wildlife are usually uncertain. These complex interactions are just beginning to be understood and few unequivocal ecological principles for trail planners are known.

Because of this uncertainty, this handbook offers rules of thumb rather than iron-clad principles. These rules of thumb are helpful suggestions based on practical experience, extrapolations from the sometimes sketchy scientific literature, and just plain common sense. They are experienced guesses that may prove useful even though they may not be “right” in every situation. Each could appropriately be prefaced with phrases such as, “when possible” or “in general.”

Perhaps the greatest contribution of these rules of thumb is that they raise issues that trail planners might not otherwise anticipate. Also, if most relevant rules of thumb cannot be met, it may indicate a trail should not be built in that location.
Even if scientists were certain of the specific impacts of trails— something that should become better known over the coming years— that knowledge still has to be balanced with the benefits of trails. Scientific facts alone don’t dictate what should be done with a specific trail. It is the larger framework of laws and community desires that determine what should— or must— be valued and protected.

How to use this handbook

There are many ways to use this handbook. Readers who are new to wildlife issues may choose to read the handbook from cover to cover. Others may want to turn first to the wildlife planning checklist (or its summary on the next page) to find issues for which they would like more background. Others may wish to look up a specific topic or source of assistance.

The handbook’s two major sections— the primer and the checklist— are offered as distinct ways of accessing the same issues and information. Readers are free to choose the approach that best fits their circumstances.
This handbook should not be thought of as a cookbook, with a one-size-fits-all approach. Every trail project is different and the important ecological issues will vary widely with the kinds of trails, wildlife, and habitat.

photo credit: Nathan Anderson, Unsplash

The Primer introduces topics

If you have general questions about the interactions of wildlife and trails, the primer— which is organized around broad wildlife topics— is a good place to start. In addition to key concepts and rules of thumb, references are presented for each topic.

The Checklist suggests steps

The checklist focuses specifically on wildlife issues of trail planning and is designed to mirror comprehensive planning processes.

This should make it easier to integrate the information into the ways trails are already being planned.

If you are beginning to plan a trail and want to find appropriate ways of including wildlife issues, the checklist may be a practical aid. It raises important questions through each step of the planning process.

This brief document functions best at raising issues, presenting background, offering suggestions, and providing references to other, more in-depth, sources of information. The authors hope that the handbook also will encourage more discussion and study of wildlife and trails issues.

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