The future of the National Trails System faces fundamental challenges

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

Our celebrations of the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System are well underway. While we are celebrating throughout 2018 the 50 years of tremendous progress in establishing, protecting, developing, maintaining, and interpreting the trails of the National Trails System, it is appropriate and essential to plan for the next 50 years of work needed to fully develop and sustain the trails, our organizations, and the entire trails system.  

When I ponder the future of the National Trails System, I see three fundamental challenges that must be addressed for this daring idea to be fully realized—for the National Trails System to fully bloom. Although our trail organizations and agencies and the national trails have developed significantly through 50 years of a staggering amount of effort by tens of thousands of dedicated people, in a very real sense we have barely just begun to realize the full potential of this remarkable idea. How we address the three challenges will determine whether the National Trails System succeeds to its full potential.


  • 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.

While considerable progress has been made over the past 50 years toward overcoming these challenges, to some degree in some places—and for several of the national trails—the pace of development of our organizations and our trails portends that 50 years from now those same challenges will loom largely unresolved. For instance, although over the past 20 years we have significantly increased appreciation of the value and importance of the national scenic and historic trails within the Federal agencies that administer and manage them, the support for the trails still seems highly dependent on the enthusiasm for them of individual agency leaders. Only in varying and irregular degrees have the national trails been included within the prevailing culture of the three agencies that administer them. The idea of these trails functioning as an interagency system is still just an idea waiting to be implemented.

Similarly, there have been piecemeal efforts along several of the scenic and historic trails to acquire land or easements from willing sellers to close gaps, enabling the trails to be extended a few miles and preserving the natural and scenic quality of them. However, at the pace this work is proceeding, in another 50 years we may have increased the number of completed continuous off-road national scenic trails from one to perhaps four, maybe five at best—less than half of those authorized. Despite some inspiringly creative projects along several of the historic trails, it is very difficult to imagine what percentage of their hundreds or thousands of “high potential sites and segments” will be fully protected, interpreted, and available for recreational use 50 years from now.

Over the past decade or two, several of the individual trail organizations have grown significantly in size and capacity. Their membership base, the number of volunteers and the number of hours they contribute annually, and their private sector financial support have all increased substantially. Nine of the scenic trail organizations and seven of the historic trail organizations have full-time professional staff supporting about half of the 30 authorized national trails. Despite this tremendous growth in the resources available, none—not even the largest of these organizations—believes it has enough resources to adequately sustain its trail in its current incarnation. The resources—money and people—needed to fully protect, interpret, develop, and sustain each trail and all 30 is beyond the current capacity of the organizations to secure.

So in this 50th anniversary year we rightly celebrate the many creative educational and citizen engagement programs underway, the innovative partnerships with numerous local communities, land trusts, and other conservation entities, and the high skill levels and dedication of tens of thousands of citizen volunteers and public and private professional staff that make and sustain the National Trails System today. As we do this, however, we must consider that to make and sustain the National Trails System of tomorrow will require a magnitude of resources much greater than we are able to bring to bear now. As we draw well deserved attention to our successes, the benefits our trails provide every day, and reach out to new audiences and potential supporters in this 50th anniversary, we must use this opportunity to begin the happy task of expanding the numbers of volunteers and significantly increasing the number of donors and dollars needed to begin the joyful work of completing the National Trails System. I will explore the three challenges and ways we might resolve them in the Summer Issue of Pathways Across America.

Enjoy the magic rebirth of spring!

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.