Solving Policy Issues for Trail Systems

Permits, and policies, rules and regulations… yuck!

While developing policies and regulations for a trail is not a fun task, it will become a necessity in time with any successful trail project.

by Terry Whaley, Executive Director, Ozark Greenways, Inc.

IF YOU WANT TO suck the excitement and creativity out of a community trail planning initiative fast, just invite the attorney, risk manager, or insurance provider to your next meeting. The one trait all trail proponents around the country have in common is the desire to “get ‘er done.” Which means we usually strive for trail on the ground and feet on the trail.

While developing policies and regulations for a trail is not a fun task, it will become a necessity in time with any successful trail project. I remember several years ago passing around an article to my board members about a trail that was experiencing user conflicts due to its popularity. At that time we had little trail on the ground, and no finished project we could hang our hats on. However, we all had the same thought after reading that article: “Wouldn’t it be great to have that problem?” Someday…

From that meeting on, in the back of our minds we looked forward to the day which we might be lucky enough to have desirable trails on the ground that we might experience user conflict and get to deal with permits or special use policies. Well, be careful of what you wish for. As just a few years later we were in the permit and rules mode of trail management.

The need for trail policy and rules will evolve with the success and maturity of your trail system. The trail itself needs no rules or operation policy. The common ingredient driving this need from my experience has been the introduction of people to the trail. Trail policies are often driven by a current hot issue or need to position an opinion, to control situations, to protect a resource, or reduce potential conflict, and always provide for the safety of the trail user.

It would be great if we all had the crystal ball and could accurately predict the next policy need so we might be ahead of the game. However, because we are still operating on the desire to “get ‘er done” and put trail on the ground, we tend to address policy needs as they arise and often with a knee-jerk reaction and under some self-inflicted time deadline. This approach only places additional stress on the decision-making process and often creates unclear or incomplete policies.

We have found the best approach is to take a deep breath and count to ten. Then find 3-5 people who like to solve problems and can see situations from different perspectives. People outside the organization often bring a clarity and balance to the discussion when staff or board members might be too close to offer fair policy. However, make sure to include representatives from your user groups affected by any policy development.

Give them a time line to work from... not a deadline. You will get better attention and faster results from a task force if they know their comment is not a life term. I like to start with a specific statement of the problem or develop a very brief objective of what the policy is to solve. This helps to keep your task force focused on the specific issue and avoids policy creep (i.e. reduce trailhead parking conflicts during peak weekend use). Once an outline or draft policy is developed, put it aside and let the old policy fermentation process work for a week to ten days.

You will be surprised how much simpler situations can be after you have spilled the initial concerns and discussion points. Much like any fermentation process, the policy and specific distance. This helps to remove and avoid the knee jerk reaction which cultivates attempts to solve today’s problem, but creates future problems for the enforcement of unclear policy which often is targeted toward one very specific situation.

I also like to keep policy simple so it can be understood by all who need to know, and are impacted or guided by your policy. Legalese with confusing “whereas, therefore, alterations, defaults, and counterparts” only misdirect your intentions. As such, often a policy might be as simple and short as a paragraph stating or guiding when a practice or action is to take place. Many years ago we developed an Investment Policy to direct how we would handle the transfer of stock gifts to our organization. What was perceived as a monumental task, and would possibly be contained in nothing less than several three ring binders, became that very simple paragraph which the board to this day follows without question or conflict.

The policy is clear, concise, manageable, and effective. Other issues for which we have developed operation policy include: Our Good Neighbor Fence Policy, which guide how and when we might participate in providing fences to landowners where trails or trail users become an issue.

Another is our Trail Access Policy which has worked for years in guiding requests from public or private parties desiring to cross our trails with utilities, water lines, or even driveways. In the early years we developed a Trail Paving Policy which guided us as to what conditions we might hard surface a trail... this was considered a sin by some in the early days, and still by some today.

Most recently, due to the great success of our trails we needed to develop a Trail Use/Reservation Policy to manage special events such as bicycle rides, walks, and runs on trails. Many of these activities are fund raisers for localcharities. While the trail could accommodate the user load, the challenge was how to handle the trailhead or parking area loads when several hundred unexpected users showed up and competed for the same restroom, parking, and shelter facilities which were already reserved by others via park or shelter reservation practices. In addition, we use this as an opportunity to promote other lesser used trail locations as the special event trails.

One additional tip we have learned is to first introduce new policy on “friendly users” to work out possible bugs or operational hang-ups. It may even be prudent to give new policies a trail time frame of a season or two just to see how it will work before locking into a rule or official regulation which is set to cause additional conflict.

Rules, Regulations, Policies, and Permits: Here’s hoping you have to deal with some in the future, because it will be a sign that you have some great community trails on the ground and people are using it in ways you never conceived.

About the Author

Terry Whaley is currently serving as Executive Director to Ozark Greenways Inc. in Springfield, Missouri. The mission of Ozark Greenways is “Enhancing and Preserving the Ozark Natural Heritage for Public Use and Enjoyment”. As Executive Director (since 1995) Terry’s duties include the promotion and education of linear parks, greenways and trails to the Ozark Greenways membership and general public.

The organization maintains a membership of 1,000 members and is responsible for private fund raising, acquisition of trail easements; trail design; trail development and the creation of a land trust committee to work in preserving open spaces in Greene County. In addition to promoting local trail projects Ozark Greenways also manages the Frisco Highline Trial a 35-mile rail trail project in Greene and Polk Counties. The FHT is the second longest Rail Trail in Missouri.

From 1980 until 1995 Terry served as the Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Fenton, Missouri in St. Louis County. A 1980 graduate of Southwest Missouri State University he holds a BS degree in Recreation & Leisure Studies. Terry is a current board member of American Trail and is a board member/past chairman for the Mississippi River Trail Association.

Contact: [email protected]

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