Land Protection and Restoration 2021 Highlights

With 69% of Americans living within an hour drive of a National Trail, the 30 Congressionally designated National Scenic Trails and National Historic Trails provide access to iconic natural places and capture significant stories of the nation. They are uniquely positioned to further connect and conserve landscapes and corridors while meeting the increasing demand for outdoor recreation spaces. Last year was no exception, as National Scenic and Historic Trails across the US continued to protect land for, mobilize communities and advocate for trail land protection to for wildlife and ecosystem protection, climate resilience, greater accessibility and enjoyment.

Roughly 1900 acres of land were conserved on the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail in 2021 as the Ala Kahakai Trail Association (ATA) aquired 1300-acres of land at Kaunamano in October and secured an easement on another 600 acres at Honuapo. The ATA also secured funding for their 1800-acre acquisition project to be pursued in the near future. These acquisitions are the culmination of 5 years of effort by the ATA in partnership with the Trust for Public Land to protect the Trail and the coastline of Hawaii’s Big Island from development while also helping to close gaps in the Trail. 

Not all projects focused on land protection. Significant time is focused on restoration and natural resource management. For instance, on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, following the 2020 purchase of a 46-acre property called Mammoth’s Back Preserve just outside of Cross Plains, Wisconsin, the Dane County Chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance hosted 10 workdays in 2021 to remove invasive plant species on the site, as well as a Mobile Skills Crew project to establish a loop trail that extended the existing Ice Age Trail by 3 miles. According to IATA Representative Patrick Gleissner, “Mammoth’s Back Preserve has been and will continue to be a rewarding property to restore prairie and oak savannah, provide habitat for native plants, insects like the Rusty Patch Bumblebee and Monarch butterflies, as well as grassland birds.”

On the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, several acres of land south of Chase, Kansas were donated to the Santa Fe Trail Center in Larned, Kansas and are being developed for public access with assistance from the Quivira and Wet/Dry Routes Chapters of the Santa Fe Trail Association. Plans for the site include signage, an interpretive exhibit, development of off-road parking, and access to visit the trail ruts and buffalo wallows on the property. The Santa Fe Trail Association also constructed a new pedestrian hiking trail with interpretive exhibits at the Black Jack Rut Site located in the Ivan Boyd Memorial Prairie Preserve near Baldwin City, Kansas. The new trail provides better access to one of the best preserved segments along the Trail.

The Chesapeake Conservancy completed the first stage of a multi-million-dollar construction project on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail intended to convert the site of the historic J.B. Robinson Oyster House into a riverside park complete with kayaking access, a natural green amphitheater, and a prayer garden and Tribal ring where members of the local Nanticoke Tribe can hold traditional ceremonies. The waterfront parcel was purchased by the Chesapeake Conservancy in partnership with the Mt. Cuba Center and was then donated to the City of Seaford, Delaware. The park is now open to the public for recreation. 

A mile of off-road trail was added to the Potomac National Scenic Trail in northern Virginia, connecting Belmont Bay to Veterans Park via Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. “We’re celebrating one mile, but it’s an important celebration, because open space and trails…help remind us of the beauty we live with, which, in our busy lives, we don’t often get to appreciate,” Congressman Gerry Connelly of Virginia said of the project while speaking to Inside NoVa News. 

The Continental Divide Trail Completion Act was introduced in 2021 to mandate the completion of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in time for its 50th anniversary in 2028. Completion of the Trail would expand access to the outdoors by protecting a critical corridor for a diversity of wildlife and ecosystems; offering greater access and recreational opportunities for the public; and, boosting rural economies that run along the trail. This legislation was moved out of committee in January 2022, and is awaiting a House vote. Additionally, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition completed  Optimal Location Reports that systematically and objectively outline the best locations for the Trail, thereby creating a roadmap for completing the entire trail.

Through the Appalachian Trail Landscape Conservation Partnership (ATLP), the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) brings together National Park Service and over 100 partners to accelerate the pace and scale of land conservation on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail landscape. By protecting the landscape, ATLP seeks to preserve the trail experience beyond its immediate footpath and narrow surrounding corridor to protect the Trail’s pristine viewsheds, watersheds, and diversity of natural resources.. The ATLP completed a strategic plan and created a Climate Advisory Group to strategize for land preservation over the next few years. ATC also administered the 4th year of Wild East Action Fund Grants, awarding $500,000 to 19 organizations to support land conservation of climate resilient lands and to build the capacity of partner organizations.

On the Arizona National Scenic Trail, the staff and volunteers of the Arizona Trail Association (ATA) and Federal agency employees worked together to restore a natural spring that was negatively impacted by a recent wildfire and post-fire erosion. They refurbished Pigeon Spring in the Four Peaks region of the Tonto National Forest, which will increase water reliability for thru-hikers in an otherwise arid area. The project also offers “immense benefits for wildlife,” according to ATA Executive Director Matt Nelson.

A new section of trail was added to the Arizona National Scenic Trail to create an alternate route that provides a more hiker-friendly experience. The Alder Ridge re-route replaced a former 9-mile walk along a Forest Service road marred with powerlines and often used by ATVs with 7 miles of singletrack trail near Pine, Arizona. It took the Arizona Trail Association 6 months, a $105,000 grant from the Recreational Trails Program administered by Arizona State Parks and Trails, and hundreds of volunteer hours to complete. The hard work resulted in a clear path through the Mazatzal Wilderness.

Further south in Arizona, this summer’s record-breaking monsoon rain challenged the all-volunteer Anza Trail Coalition of Arizona (ATCA) Trail Crew. Almost 17 inches of rain fell during July and August along the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, replenishing soil moisture levels and causing major flooding just north of the Mexican border. Debris, including tree branches and trash, concentrated as it moved, eventually forming plugs or bottle dams in the river channel. Thanks to ATCA volunteers, all sections of the Anza NHT are now open. ATCA Trail Crews rebuilt 6 pedestrian bridges, cleared fallen trees, removed invasive brush, and rerouted the trail around places where the river cut a new channel.

Along the Oregon National Historic Trail, the Nebraska Chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) claimed victory on one conservation battle in the courtroom. OCTA successfully partnered on a lawsuit to stop the construction of a powerline near the Sutherland rest stop on I-80. The powerline was to be built directly on top of a site that contains ruts from the Oregon and California Trails and is well-interpreted and highly visited.  

In 2021, National Scenic and Historic Trails played a major role in helping to conserve, restore, and protect landscapes and natural and historic resources across the United States. And, whether through direct acquisition, refurbishment efforts, policy, or partnerships, National Scenic and Historic Trails are at the forefront of land protection, and will no doubt continue to be a major force for land conservation and climate resilience for the foreseeable future.