The National Trails System: Journeys of discovery beyond the tread and ruts

In 1991, leaders of the national scenic and historic trail organizations began a journey together. The journey is a long quest to realize the full potential and purpose of the National Trails System. Like journeys taken along these trails, this has been and continues to be a journey of discovery and learning.

At first, just like hikers on the trails, the focus was mostly on placing one foot ahead of the other on the trail tread or carefully following the ruts and other historic traces. Now, somewhere midway in our journey, some have realized that the trail tread, ruts, and other historic traces—while essential and necessary to these trails—are not the end, but rather are only the beginning of the journey. A further understanding has grown that the quality of our journey—like an inspiring trip along one of the trails—is as important, perhaps more important, than the arrival at the destination. The quality of the journey depends on a number of factors, including the landscape surrounding the trail and the people with whom we share the journey.

Scanning the landscapes traversed by the national scenic and historic trails—not just the physical features of the land, but the variety of ecosystems and the patterns of watercourses that drain the land—provide a deeper appreciation of the significance and value of these trails. Some of the national scenic and historic trail organizations are understanding their trails in ways far beyond a focus on just their treads or ruts.

For instance, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, recognizing the hydrologic significance of the route the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) tread traces on the land, has decided to map the trail as the head of all the watersheds along it. Besides providing an exciting new way of understanding the geography of the CDT, this approach helps reveal another way the trail connects and benefits people and communities many miles from the tread itself. This understanding provides another reason to protect the land and resources through which the trail passes, and it also gives new people interested in protecting water quality and quantity rather than long-distance hiking reason to join the efforts to protect the integrity of the CDT. The Pacific Crest Trail Association is embarking on a similar mapping recognition of watersheds along the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.

In a similar “beyond the tread” activity, segments of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail (IAT) are helping to preserve, restore, and link together small remnants of the prairie and oak savanna communities that are now rare but once were the dominant native ecosystems in southern Wisconsin. This work to restore and manage these ecosystems complements the trail making of the Ice Age Trail Alliance and is akin to the work of organizations, like The Nature Conservancy, focused on ecological preservation and restoration. The Ice Age Trail Alliance has gained recognition within the environmental community focused on land preservation for ecological purposes. With that recognition has come help to preserve more land for the IAT from both local governments and land trusts, as well as inspired more volunteers to help manage the lands within the trail corridor. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has done similar work to keep open the “balds” along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in the southern Appalachian Mountains for decades.

Within our national trails community we are also developing a much greater appreciation for the cultural dimensions of the landscapes traversed by our scenic and historic trails. Acting on those realizations has resulted in several of our trail organizations making common cause with Native Americans to preserve common sacred ground. Over the past several years, the Chesapeake Conservancy has worked with leaders of the Rappahannock Tribe to preserve two sites sacred to the Tribe and critical for protecting the ecology and scenic quality of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. Werowocomoco was the site of one of the largest Indian communities along the East Coast 400 years ago, and the recently acquired Fones Cliffs is another site sacred to the Tribe that also is a roosting area for bald eagles and habitat for a wide array of species. Both areas were purchased using Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) money.

Way to the west in the mid-Pacific, leaders of the Ala Kahakai Trail Association—some of whom are Native Hawaiians—have been working with the State of Hawaii and the National Park Service to preserve sacred sites along the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail. Kaunamano and Waikapuna are two of these places that preserve rich Hawaiian cultural sites while also protecting the integrity of the historic trail for recreational use. Money from the State of Hawaii and the LWCF has been used to acquire these special places.

Just as all of our national scenic and historic trails either help define or pass through watersheds and ecologically critical areas, they all travel lands once lived upon by Native Americans. If we act upon these understandings of the larger geography of each of our national scenic and historic trails, we will have many more opportunities to demonstrate the multidimensional value of our trails and make common cause with much broader communities of people.

Another major dimension of expanding the geography of our trails beyond their tread and ruts and enriching the companionship for our journey are the justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) initiatives now underway within the Partnership and a number of our trail organizations. These efforts to include people who have traditionally not been involved in the national scenic and historic trails—either as users or helpers to sustain them—is an emulation and expansion of the “Tent of Many Voices” that was a key component of the Signature Events held along the route to commemorate the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition early in this century. Now with more understanding and heightened sensitivity, we have numerous opportunities to expand and enrich the companionship for our journey and to add a rich diversity of voices to the choir telling the many-faceted stories of our trails.

After nearly 30 years of travel together and midway through our journey to realize the full potential and dream of the National Trails System, we have many new opportunities to demonstrate the physiographic, ecological, and cultural significance and benefit of our national trails. We also have many new opportunities to share the journey with new companions from all the cultures and communities of America and to add their voices to ours telling the stories inherent in the trails. Let us continue to explore and actualize these opportunities as we enjoy our journey together.

Good and inspiring travels!

Gary Werner