Let’s prioritize transforming our trails into a national system of resource preservation lands

By Gary Werner, Executive Director, Partnership for the National Trails System

In 2018 as we began our year-long commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System Act, 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.

A section of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in the Holmes Preserve of the Table Bluff Segment in Cross Plains, WI during a prescribed burn (above) and later during its regeneration (below). Photo Credit: Gary Werner

In several issues of Pathways last year I discussed the second and third of these challenges. Now let us consider the first one: how to transform a collection of exceptional routes and places into a system of world-renowned pathways to self-awareness, understanding, and connection with the natural world, our history, and cultures. For most of the 50 year history of the National Trails System, the national scenic and historic trails have been operated by the three Federal agencies that administer them and the other agencies that manage portions of them as singularly separate projects governed by widely divergent land management policies and practices.  

All of the Federal land managing agencies are well accustomed to administering and managing discrete blocks of land, whether a few acres or millions of acres in size. None of these agencies has an institutional culture adept at managing resources along long corridors. That these extensive corridors—the national scenic and historic trails—usually cross blocks of land administered by several of these agencies, as well as State and local public lands, multiplies the challenges for administering them manyfold. Convincing the Federal agencies responsible for administering these national trails that they need to develop mutually agreed-upon approaches to consistently administer and manage them has been quite a challenge spanning several decades of work by a number of enthusiastic and well-intentioned people within those agencies and among the nonprofit partners supporting these trails.

Over the past decade, several seminal actions have provided a framework for developing and implementing a more consistent, systematic approach to administering and managing these national trails. In 2009, Congress established the National Conservation Lands system within the hundreds of millions of acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and included the national scenic and historic trails as components of this system. This system is intended to prioritize the conservation and preservation of the resources of these lands within the broader mandate of multiple-use that governs BLM’s management of the public lands. To make this designation effective in 2012, the BLM issued a set of policy manuals to guide the planning for and administration and management of national scenic and historic trails as special preservation corridors.

This action was mirrored several years later by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in the promulgation of a new Forest Planning Rule. The new directives guiding how forest planners are to develop resource management plans for the national forests now require that national scenic and historic trails be recognized as areas, or corridors, requiring special management, again within the agency’s broader multiple-use mandate.

More recently, the Federal Interagency Council on Trails has been rechartered as the National Trails System Council with a charge to address policy and other management inconsistencies among the agencies administering and managing the trails. The National Trails System lead staff in the National Park Service (NPS), BLM, and USFS have also instituted the National Trail Administrators Roundtable (NTAR) to provide a forum and mechanism for the administrators of the 30 national scenic and historic trails to work together across agencies to address challenges they face and implement system-wide management practices and approaches.

Some initial progress has been made within each of these initiatives. Several resource management area and national forest plans have been developed within the BLM and the USFS that provide for broad special management corridors surrounding national scenic and historic trails. The NTAR has been functioning for more than three years with an annual meeting each year and committees working across agencies on an ongoing basis.

Taken together, these initiatives form an institutional framework that, if practiced consistently, can over time help mold the national scenic and historic trails into a recognizable National Trails System comparable to the National Park System and the National Wildlife Refuge System. An immediate challenge is to continue the good start as more resource management area and national forest plans are revised to provide consistent management for the national scenic and historic trails from forest to forest, management area to management area. To accomplish this will require the good will of many agency land managers and the diligent, persistent encouragement and insistence of citizen advocates within the national trails organizations.

A major challenge that must be addressed is the unequal recognition and status among the 23 national scenic and historic trails administered by the NPS. Three of the scenic trails administered by the NPS are included as units of the National Park System. The other three scenic trails and 17 historic trails administered by the NPS currently reside with a variety of other programs operated by the NPS, all secondary to the National Park System. Not only do they lack the recognition as part of the National Park System, but they also do not receive support from funding and programs accorded to the national parks. Bills have been introduced in Congress to rectify this situation for several of these “orphan trails,” but Congress has not enacted them yet.

Ultimately, the overarching challenge is to create a new type of resource based public land system encompassing the national scenic and historic trails that is a hybrid involving public agencies at all levels of government and a variety of private entities and individuals. With the authorization of Congress this National Trails System is a Federal system, but it is also fundamentally collaborative requiring shared stewardship of major elements of our nation’s heritage. This hybrid system must be operated in a manner that is welcoming, respectful, and encouraging of the essential help of all the entities—public and private—involved.

Fortuitously we have a model of such a way to operate so extensive and multifaceted a system that has been successfully working for more than three decades. The National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy are the principal partners guiding the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Cooperative Management System. This approach, relying on the help of scores of entities to manage the various segments of the more than 2,000 mile trail, can serve as a template to be adapted appropriately for the other 29 national scenic and historic trails.

A vision is emerging, shared by Federal agency managers and nonprofit organization leaders, of the national scenic and historic trails as protected corridors preserving the integrity of the natural, cultural, and historic resources along them and the quality of the experiences for the people visiting them. This vision, akin to the vision animating the national parks and wildlife refuges, can be the glue holding this new system together and the force energizing our work together to make it happen. The necessary institutional framework has been established. We have many proven tools and models to use to make it happen. Let us get on with this good and necessary work.

Happy Spring!

Gary Werner

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.