Let’s prioritize closing the gaps and protecting the special places along our national trails

by Gary Werner, Executive Director of the Partnership for the National Trails System

In the Spring Issue of Pathways Across America, I briefly described these fundamental challenges that we in the National Trails System community face to fully realize the potential and expectations of our national scenic and historic trails.


  • Transforming the national scenic and historic trails from a collection of premier trails into a national public lands system like the National Park System and the National Wildlife Refuge System or the National Wilderness System.
  • Completing the trails on the ground—closing the gaps in the scenic trails and preserving and interpreting all the “high potential sites and segments” along the historic trails.
  • Growing all of the national trail organizations to greatly enhance their capacity and resources and that of the Federal trail agencies to be able to fully develop and sustain the National Trails System.

The second challenge, which I will describe in more detail first because it is most tangible to our trails “on-the-ground,” is to complete all 30 national scenic and historic trails so that they provide the full range of benefits for Americans intended by Congress in authorizing them. At the least, “completing” the 11 national scenic trails means closing the more than 4,000 miles of gaps that remain in 10 of them. These gaps total the length of two Appalachian Trails, the only national scenic trail completely off-road in a permanently protected corridor.

Compass plants bloom in a restored prairie along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Photo Credit: Gary Werner.

Completing national historic trails is somewhat more complicated since, unlike the AT for the scenic trails, we do not have a template of a fully-functioning national historic trail to use as a model. National historic trails are also more complicated due to the Congressional expectation that they both preserve historic artifacts and remains and provide appropriate recreational opportunities. Unlike the scenic trails there is no expectation that they be continuous recreational routes other than their auto tour routes. Instead, they consist of sets of thousands of “high potential sites and segments”—places along them with high recreational potential—many yet to be determined. Determining the feasible and sustainable balance between appropriate recreation and preservation is a challenge within the larger “trail completion” challenge. Despite the Congressional expectation, some of the national historic trail organizations envision making continuous off-road recreational routes for their national trails.

To meet the challenge of completing the trails and fully protecting the array of resources along them will require both the Federal trail administrators and their nonprofit organization partners making this task their priority. To meet this challenge we will need to develop an ongoing, active land acquisition program, of the scale of the one which completed the protection of the Appalachian Trail over 30 years, for each of the other national scenic and historic trails. To do so will require both the agencies and the trail organizations to fund the people—public agency and private organization staff—to do this work. Acquisition goals and strategies appropriate to each trail will need to be set and developed.

The magnitude of this task also means that each national trail partnership must collaborate in longterm partnerships with State and local governments and local, regional, and national land trusts to garner their assistance to complete their trail. For the eastern trails in States with a preponderance of private land, engagement of State and local agencies will be crucial to the success of this work.

Recognizing and expressing the many dimensions of resource conservation inherent in the expectations of the National Trails System beyond its recreational opportunities will facilitate engaging government agencies and organizations with other missions. There are multiple dimensions of resource conservation benefits possible along long-distance trails.


  • Corridors for wildlife movement and connection between scattered fragments of ecosystems
  • Watershed protection
  • Preservation of rural working lands and rural cultural heritage
  • Community connections, regional identity, and the basis for heritage and recreational tourism

To enthusiastically embrace the challenge and opportunities of closing the gaps and protecting the resources along our national scenic and historic trails, trail administrators and trail organization leaders must realize that managing a corridor of land surrounding each of these trails provides numerous opportunities to involve many more volunteers and entities not already engaged in building and maintaining the trail tread. These are volunteers and organizations keenly motivated to help protect and sustain the natural, cultural, and historic resources the trail corridor protects. They will help manage the trail lands and easements by doing things such as identifying and monitoring threatened and endangered species and cultural resources, controlling invasive species, restoring native ecosystems, and monitoring property boundaries. Broadening or enlarging the recognized purpose of national scenic and historic trails—as Congress intended—to include active resource conservation provides opportunities to draw a whole new panoply of resources to help sustain the trails.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has been managing more than 100,000 acres of land purchased by the National Park Service under a formal agreement for more than 30 years. The management of Federal lands by the ATC is one component of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Cooperative Management System, which is a model for the other trails to emulate and adapt to their circumstances. Another example of how trail land can be managed is the self-directed work of Ice Age Trail Alliance volunteers who have been managing publicly and privately preserved Ice Age Trail land for more than 20 years. Their work includes control of invasive species and restoration of native prairie and oak savanna ecosystems using a variety of tools and state-of-the art methods, including prescribed fire.

The scale/magnitude of the land acquisition required to close the gaps and protect the resources along our national scenic and historic trails will necessitate raising hundreds of millions of dollars—public and private. During the last three years of the Obama Administration, responding to the Collaborative Landscape Planning program, Congress appropriated $60 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to purchase land along about half of the national scenic and historic trails. This infusion of Federal money increased the momentum of land acquisition already underway along several of the national scenic trails and demonstrated the possibility of actually protecting critical sites along several of the national historic trails. To build upon those successes and keep the momentum going for prioritizing closing the gaps and protecting the resources, our National Trails System community should promote the Administration and Congress to support providing $40 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund each year for the next 10 years to the four Federal agencies mentioned above most involved with the national trails.

While we implement active trail land acquisition programs for each of our national trails, we must continue to implement the delineation of and planning for special management corridors for these trails in our national forests and across Bureau of Land Management (BLM) resource management units. During the past decade we worked with farsighted planners in the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to include guidance and directives in those agencies’ planning protocols recognizing the resource conservation purpose of the National Trails System and the necessity of establishing special management corridors along the trails to protect those resources. Some of our trail organizations have been participating in the first efforts of the BLM in Wyoming and Alaska and of the USFS in California, Colorado, and North Carolina to apply the new directives to segments of some of our historic and scenic trails.  

There are many more agency resource management plans to revise and update to fully protect all of the segments of national scenic and historic trails crossing Federal lands. We will need to increase our organizations’ capacity and diligence to be effective partners helping the agencies complete this required work.

We will explore in more detail this challenge to complete the national scenic and historic trails on the ground through several workshops during the National Trail System 50th Anniversary Conference, October 22-25 in Vancouver, WA. To learn more and to register for the conference go to www.pnts.org. In the next issue of Pathways I will describe the other two fundamental challenges in more detail.

Happy summer enjoying our national trails!

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.