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Protecting America’s Long Trails

By Guest Observer November 1, 2018

Aerial view showing the Werowocomoco archeological site along the York River in Virginia along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake NHT. Photo courtesy PNTS

October, 2018, marks the 50thanniversary of two remarkable federal laws: the National Trails System and Wild and Scenic Rivers Acts.  Both laws set up ways that the federal government can assist in protecting and operating “long, skinny corridors” for recreation and heritage resource preservation

My background is with the trails, and their challenges are tough because some of them are very long – thousands of miles.  The two flagships of the National Trails System are the Appalachian and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trails, both well over 2,000 miles in length, both spanning numerous states, both highlighting mountain chains.  Both take advantage of hundreds of miles of corridor on federal or state public lands.  To fully protect both as continuous corridors of “superlative recreation,” the federal government had to acquire lands from private landowners to fill in the gaps. For long stretches, both trails are “tunnels in the woods,” where a corridor of 1,000 or 2,000 feet wide may be sufficient.  But in other places where there are magnificent views, it is hard to know how wide the protected corridor should be.

In 1978, 40 years ago, a new category of trail was added to the National Trails System – national historic trails.  In fact, between 1983 and 2009, that was the only category of trail added to the System. Today there are 11 national scenic trails and 19 national historic trails together totaling more than 50,000 miles in length and crossing 49 of the 50 states.  National historic trails do not need to be continuous – rather, they commemorate important routes of travel from the past by featuring the remnant ruts, grave sites, structures, etc., that are left, linked together when possible by signed auto tour routes.  Many of them – and especially in the West – feature large landscapes that are difficult to preserve.

For the trails, it is useful to distinguish between “management” and “administration.” Management relates to the ownership and jurisdiction of the land (or water) where the trail route occurs. Administration relates to the agency carrying out the coordinative authorities of the Trails Act.  Sometimes they are the same agency – this occurs, for example, where the Appalachian Trail crosses national park units, since the National Park Service administers that trail and manages those units.  Most often, though, one agency administers a trail while another manages specific segments – and they need to work together for any success to occur.  This can be difficult when these agencies have different missions, distinct traditions and operating laws, varying staffing and budget priorities, and conflicting attitudes about trails, recreation, and heritage conservation.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the National Trails System Act. Image: LBJ Presidential Library

When the Trails Act was first passed, thanks to special pleading by then Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, the first two trails had access to eminent domain as a last resort, and it has been used effectively and sparingly.  Then in amendments passed in 1978 and 1983, Congress severely limited the use of eminent domain for all subsequent trails established under the Act. This has led to some very creative alternative ways for protecting trail-related land resources: state protection programs, land trusts, cooperative agreements, site certification, etc.

The National Trails System Act was one in a long suite of environmental and recreational laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s.  It was piloted to passage by Secretary Udall and Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI). President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law just before the end of his term as president.  Over five decades, times change, political dynamics change, budgets come and go.  Amazingly, the National Trails System has endured and grown.  And the key is citizen involvement and advocacy.  From the start, it set in motion conservation through partnership, inspired by the decades-long chain of agreements between the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trail organizations and federal agencies through whose lands those trails were routed.  Amendments to the Trails Act in 1983 expanded and defined the many roles volunteers could play in planning, building, maintaining, promoting, and operating the trails.  Since then, a variety of national advocacy organizations have been founded (American Hiking Society, American Trails, and the Partnership for the National Trails System).  And, modeled on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, citizen-based volunteer organizations have been founded to help support almost every one of the trails created under the Trails Act.  In addition, nationwide land trusts – such as the Conservation Fund, Trust for Public Lands, etc. – have all stepped in to help where needed.

The key to successful national scenic and historic trails is partnerships.  These occur at many scales and for many purposes.  One authority that fostered landscape protection was the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), first established in 1965. Thanks to these funds – derived from the sale of public lands and federal off-shore oil and gas leases — $200 million has been used to protect the threatened gaps along the Appalachian Trail.  Other LWCF funds have filled in gaps in national parks and forests as well as aided states and local jurisdictions with park and recreational facilities.

During the Obama Administration, a special LWCF program called “Collaborative Landscape Planning,” made $50 million available for dozens of corridor and viewshed protection projects along many of the national scenic and historic trails.  However, the basic LWCF authority expired on September 30, so if it is not re-authorized soon, the future of the national trails will be in jeopardy.

America’s national scenic and historic trails offer unparalleled opportunities to experience our Nation’s natural and cultural dimensions.  Many sites along these trails deserve special attention as irreplaceable cultural landscapes.  Some are places sacred to indigenous peoples.  Some offer spectacular and fragile scenery.  And others may look plain and unremarkable, but from them spring stories of heroism, social change, and transformation.  I invite you this anniversary year – in fact every year – to explore America’s national scenic and history trails and see what a remarkable legacy they offer.

Steve Elkinton was trained as a landscape architect (University of Pennsylvania, 1976) and worked with the National Park Service for 36 years, 25 as program leader for the National Trails System.  In his retirement he has written an illustrated history called A Grand Experiment – the National Trails System at 50.

 

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Highway Planning on a Landscape Scale: The Next Generation

By Brenda Barrett June 29, 2016
Proposed Central Susquehanna Transportation Project Courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Transportation

Proposed Central Susquehanna Transportation Project
Courtesey Pennsylvania Department of Transportation

What happens when a highway project long planned to improve the functionality of the overall transportation system runs up against newer approaches of planning on a landscape scale? I recently spoke to this issue at the Pennsylvania Statewide Conference on Heritage   (June  6-8, 2016 Lewisburg PA). The project in question, the  Central Susquehanna Valley Transportation Project (CSVT) ,  was under construction nearby and involved a bypass and a major new bridge crossing over the Susquehanna River. It  was planned to remedy traffic congestion on the one of the state’s major north south corridors and reroute through traffic, particularly truck traffic, out of small towns in the region.  But the project’s history was anything, but straightforward.

Susquehanna Canoe Sojourn Courtesey Susquehanna Greenway Partnership

Susquehanna Canoe Sojourn
Courtesey  Susquehanna Greenway Partnership

Planning for the project began long ago with the Final Environmental Impact Statement on the selected alignment approved in 2003. After project design was underway, it was put on hold due to lack of funding. With the passage of a new funding package in 2013, the project was reactivated. However, during that ten-year hiatus ideas about the cultural and natural values in the region had undergone a substantial shift. The project now crossed through the Susquehanna Greenway , a 500 miles state greenway. This section of the river was now designated as a National Recreational Trail by the Secretary of the Interior. And most significantly, the river corridor was incorporated into the CaptainJohn Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.  Originally authorized by Congress in 2006, its goals was to help the visitors to the Chesapeake Bay understand the significance of John Smith’s explorations and his impact upon the rich American Indian cultures and to appreciate and care for the life and landscape of this national treasure. The trail now extends up the many of the tributaries of the Chesapeake in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

When long delayed construction of the CSVT  was announced, all of these new designations brought new partners to the table  seeking to conserve landscape scale cultural and natural resources in the project area – resources that had not even been envisioned in 2003. The traditional transportation planning approach had been to identify individual historic or archeological sites and the specific location of a threatened flora or faunal species and then avoid or mitigate site specific impacts. Now this whole approach was being called into question. In the case of the CSVT compromises were negotiated and in particular minimization strategies were developed to reduce impact on the Susquehanna River crossing, provide additional public access, and offer more consultation on riverfront development in the future.

btn15_mapBut what about the next time?  To begin with we need to recast our perspective to embrace a larger landscape approach. If the one of purposes of planning for infrastructure development such as transportation projects is to do so in a way that minimizes the impact on cultural and natural resources and maximizes the benefit to the public, then we need to stay abreast of the new frameworks by which these disciplines define themselves.

Let’s start with Natural Resources. The field has long used an ecosystem approach, which understands the importance of the interaction of organisms with their wider physical environment. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences on large landscapes  tackled the central question of the best way to conserve the natural world noting that conservation challenges exceed the capacity of any single entity or protected habitat. Increased urbanization, extreme weather events, and fragmentation of habitat threaten both flora and fauna require that resource conservation take a broad landscape scale approach and build in connectivity for species to migrate and have room to range. So, it is not enough to avoid the spot where an endangered species was last spotted. What is needed is to predict where it is going, where can it thrive in the future.

Things are also shifting in the world of Cultural Resources. Historic preservation practioners know that that the discipline has moved from identifying individual landmarks to considering historic districts and now whole landscapes. The National Park Service has been a leader in calling for this re-examination of cultural landscape approach. Our commonwealth has also been in the forefront  develop ing a comprehensive multiple property documentation for the   Agricultural Resources of Pennsylvania, a good example of evaluating a complex living landscape. It is true that cultural resources are not going to migrate or fly away, but we need to accept that they are more dynamic and larger than our past concepts of what is significant. Cultural resources are best understood in a larger context that tells the whole story.

Finally, Recreational Resources are also being viewed through a wide angled lens.In the middle Atlantic many rivers and stream system are being developed into a statewide network of water trails. Former rail lines and canals are now the backbone of  trail systems running for hundreds of miles across the state. And of course the National Park Service manages National Scenic and Historic Trails system that crisscross the whole country. The most iconic being the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia and a chunk of PA in between. The connectivity of these resources is critical.  Once a trail crossing is severed, it may be impossible or at best expensive to reconnect.

 This new larger perspective presents management challenges, but there are also new regional partnerships to help coordinate these regional geographies. For example, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania is fortunate in having a whole host of such organizations. The list includes multiple National Heritage Areas and a robust state heritage areas with 12 designated areas dedicated to melding natural, cultural and  recreational objectives along with community revitalization goals. The states’ Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has launched 7 conservation landscapes to drive strategic investment and actions around sustainability, conservation, community revitalization, and recreational projects. And the agency has taken a leadership role in statewide recreational resource planning.

In addition, land trusts and other regionally focused land conservation groups have been expanding rapidly – a survey a number of years ago counted over 130 of such initiatives in New England alone as well as the newly launched “Practioner’s Network for Large Landscapes”. The National Academy of Science ‘s 2015 report identified over 20 federal programs that are utilizing a landscape approach in the Department of Interior, of course, but also in agriculture and defense.

There are some difficulties as the older paradigms about place and partnerships have expanded.  Our project management skills and our regulatory tools have yet to catch up to this new way of thinking. While there are no overnight fixes and project planners will always have to play catch up,  I do want to conclude with a couple of specific suggestions:

1) Harness the power of big data – Big data is defined as large (or extremely large) data sets that may be analyzed to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions. The good news is that this is an area where transportation planners have been early adopters using GIS mapping in particular. But more can be done, for example,  adding the layers for rivers and trails, and other resources identified by partnership organizations. This will provide a leg up in project scoping. To get a taste of what these data bases can offer, take a look at the work of Landscope Chesapeake.  A data base that shows all the public lands and privately protected areas, trails and access points and also links in the conservation partners and state program. What a great place to begin high level 30,000-foot infrastructure planning.

2) Harness the Power of Partnerships – While much talked about, this is not easy to accomplish. And It also can seem like a burdensome add-on to what is an already crowded project planning schedule. But let’s look at the practical side,  effective public input or even better public engagement is both required as part of project planning and can make the project go more smoothly. Many of the heritage areas, land trusts, recreation organizations and conservation landscapes have identified significant resources and developed resource management plans with extensive public input.  They know what is important to the impacted region. This is great way for infrastructure planners to identify potential challenges and opportunities as well as reaching many of people who live on the ground where a project is happening.

3) Harness the power of other programs – Everyone should take a lesson from productive partnership organizations and look for the sweet spots where multiple objectives intersect. And note – this does not mean that one partner pays all – success is when projects integrate public and private dollars along with volunteer energy to deliver better communities. So think outside the box who else might have a stake in the ground? A good way to start is with an interagency approach. Who else is planning something in the region how can their work be coordinated with infrastructure development? What is in their budget and how can dollars be leveraged? High level planning that is open to new ideas is one way of accomplish these ends.

In conclusion, If I have one concern, it is that much of our planning in the past has zeroed in way too soon on way too small geography and then come up with the three least bad alternatives. Perhaps it would behoove us to spend a little more time in the stratosphere  identifying partner and programs that can help everyone be successful and accomplish their respective missions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail Expands

By Eleanor Mahoney May 22, 2012

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar recently designated four water trails as new historic connecting components of the existing Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.  Click through to watch a video of the signing ceremony. The new additions – the Susquehanna, Chester, Upper Nanticoke and Upper James Rivers – expand the public’s connections to the history, cultural heritage, and natural resources of the 3,000-mile-long national historic trail in the Chesapeake Bay. The new river connecting trails are found in Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

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