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The influence of use-related, environmental, and managerial factors on soil loss from recreational trails

This research investigated the influence of several use-related, environmental, and managerial factors on soil loss on recreational trails and roads at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, a unit of the U.S. National Park Service.

by Jeffrey Marion, Ph.D., Federal Scientist, U.S. Geological Survey


JM BISO Trail Soil Loss


Recreational uses of unsurfaced trails inevitably result in their degradation, with the type and extent of resource impact influenced by factors such as soil texture, topography, climate, trail design and maintenance, and type and amount of use. Of particular concern, the loss of soil through erosion is generally considered a significant and irreversible form of trail impact. This research investigated the influence of several use-related, environmental, and managerial factors on soil loss on recreational trails and roads at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, a unit of the U.S. National Park Service. Regression modeling revealed that trail position, trail slope alignment angle, grade, water drainage, and type of use are significant determinants of soil loss. The introduction of individual and groups of variables into a series of regression models provides improved understanding and insights regarding the relative influence of these variables, informing the selection of more effective trail management actions. Study results suggest that trail erosion can be minimized by avoiding ‘‘fall-line’’ alignments, steep grades, and valley-bottom alignments near streams, installing and maintaining adequate densities of tread drainage features, applying gravel to harden treads, and reducing horse and all-terrain vehicle use or restricting them to more resistant routes.

This research also sought to develop a more efficient Variable Cross-Sectional Area method for assessing soil loss on trails. This method permitted incorporation of CSA measures in a representative sampling scheme applied to a large (24%) sample of the park’s 526 km trail system. The variety of soil loss measures derived from the Variable CSA method, including extrapolated trail-wide soil loss estimates, permit an objective quantification of soil erosion on recreational trails and roads. Such data support relational analyses to increase understanding of trail degradation, and long-term monitoring of the natural and recreational integrity of the trail system infrastructure.

Published December 2008

About the Author

Jeff Marion is a Federal Scientist with the US Geological Survey, and is based out of Virginia Tech as an Adjunct Professor. His research specialty is Recreation Ecology, in which he investigates the environmental impacts of visitor use in protected natural areas, primarily national parks. His research has focused on visitor impacts to trails and campsites and the development of sustainable “Best Management Practices.” He was a founding member of the Leave No Trace Board of Directors, chaired the committee that guided development of the Leave No Trace principles and practices, and authored the LNT Center’s official book “Leave No Trace in the Outdoors.”

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