Closing the gaps in the National Trails System

by Partnership for the National Trails System
Adapted from submissions by Don Owen

National trail administrators and planners estimate that there are more than 55,000 miles of national scenic and historic trails that crisscross the landscape of the United States. Of that total, nearly 20,000 miles—or more than one third of the entire National Trails System—have never been built or are not accessible for the public. These “gaps” in the National Trails System represent perhaps the biggest challenge we face as a community: unless an organization or agency holds an interest in the land traversed by a national scenic or historic trail, there is no assurance that we will be able to fulfill our mandate to administer, manage, and promote these trails for the American public to experience and enjoy. 

The first step in protecting these trails is identifying where these gaps exist. Thanks to funding from the Federal Highway Administration, the Partnership for the National Trails System (PNTS) and The Trust for Public Land (TPL) are conducting a Corridor Protection Gap Analysis and Connectivity Assessment for National Trails.  

A couple hiking on the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail near Bull Lake, part of the future Trinity Divide acquisition. (Photo Credit: Rachid Dahnoun, TPL)

Since January 2019, PNTS and TPL have been collecting and analyzing trail data, using an integrated Geographic Information System (GIS) approach to identify, map, and prioritize trail protection projects throughout the National Trails System. In April 2019, the administrators and managers of four national trails (the Santa Fe and Lewis and Clark National Historic Trails and the Ice Age and North Country National Scenic Trails) volunteered to serve as pilot projects for the study. Using the best available data for each trail, researchers have developed a preliminary methodology for the project.

Preliminary Methodology

  1. Collect the best available data for each national trail;
  1. Identify all conserved lands along trail routes, including publicly owned land, interests owned by land trusts, and other lands that have been permanently protected;
  1. Conduct a spatial analysis to determine which areas are most vulnerable to development;
  1. Prioritize these “gaps” in trail protection; and
  2. Identify potential partners that may be interested in conserving lands in high-priority areas.

Researchers also have met with GIS specialists, trail administrators, land protection specialists, trail organization leaders, and land trust personnel to determine what data would be most useful. Ultimately, the study (which will be completed in November 2020) will assist trail administrators, managers, trail organization leaders, and others in identifying the most critical areas that need to be conserved along all 30 of the national scenic and historic trails so they can be protected and managed in perpetuity.  

Unless otherwise indicated, all material in Pathways Across America is public domain. All views expressed herein are perspectives of individuals working on behalf of the National Trails System and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of the Federal agencies.