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The National Trails System: An Overview

Sandra L. Johnson
Technical Informantion Specialist
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division

December 11, 1998

98-981 ENR


The National Trails System Act, P.L. 90-543, became law October 2, 1968. The Act and its subsequent amendments authorized a national system of trails and defined four categories of national trails. Since the designation of the Appalachian and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trails as the first two components, the System has grown to include 20 national trails. Now, 30 years after its inception, issues ret remain regarding funding, quality and quantity of trails, new trail categories, and nationwide promotion to make Americans more aware of the System. This report will be updated as legislative actions occur.

The National Trails System (NTS) was created in 1968 by the National Trails System Act (NT SA). 1 The Act established the Appalachian and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trails and authorized a national system of trails to provide additional outdoor recreation opportunities and to promote the preservation of access to the outdoor areas and historic resources of the nation. The National Trails System includes four classes of trails:

National Scenic Trails (NST) provide outdoor recreation and the conservation and enjoyment of significant scenic, historic, natural, or cultural qualities;

National Historic Trails (NHT) follow travel routes of national historic significance;

National Recreation Trails (NRT) are in, or reasonably accessible to, urban areas on federal, state, or private lands; and

Connecting or Side Trails provide access to or among the other classes of trails.

During the early history of the United States, trails served as routes for commerce and migration. Since the early 20th Century, trails have been constructed to provide access to scenic terrain. In 1921, the concept of the first interstate recreational trail, now known as the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, was introduced. In 1945, legislation to establish a "national system of foot trails," an amendment to a highway funding bill, was considered by not reported by committee. 2

As population expanded in the 1950s, an eager nation sought better opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. 3 In 1958, Congress established and directed the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) to make a nationwide study of outdoor national recreation needs. A 1960 survey conducted for the ORRRC indicated that 90% of all Americans participated in some form of outdoor recreation and that walking for pleasure ranked second among all recreation activities. 4 On February 8, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in his message to Congress on "Natural Beauty," called for the Nation "to copy the great Appalachian Trail in all parts of our country, and make full use of rights-of-way and other public paths." 5 Just 3 years later, Congress heeded the message by enacting the National Trails System Act.

The National Trails System began in 1968 with only two scenic trails. One was the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, stretching 2,160 miles from Mount Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia. The second was the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, covering 2,665 miles from Canada to Mexico along the mountains of Washington, Oregon, and California. The System was expanded a decade later when the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 designated four historic trails with more than 9,000 miles, and another scenic trail, along the Continental Divide, with 3,100 miles. Today, the federal portion of the System consists of 20 national trails (8 scenic trails, 12 historic trails) covering almost 40,000 miles and listed in table 1. In addition, the Act has authorized 1,000 rails-to-trails conversions, more than 800 national recreation trails, and 2 connecting or side trails.

As defined in the National Trails System Act, NSTs and NHTs are long distance trails and are designated as national trails by Acts of Congress. NRTs and connecting and side trails may be designated by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture with the consent of the federal agency, state, or political subdivision over the lands involved. Of the 39 feasibility studies requested since 1968, 5 NSTs and 12 NUTs have been designated.


Year Trail Public Law
1968 Appalachian NST P.L. 90-543
1968 Pacific Crest NST P.L. 90-543
1978 Continental Divide NST P.L. 95-25
1978 Oregon NHT P.L. 95-25
1978 Mormon Pioneer NHT P.L. 95-25
1978 Iditarod NHT P.L. 9525
1978 Lewis and Clark NHT P.L. 95-25
1980 North Country NST P.L. 96-199
1980 Overmountain Victory NHT P.L. 96-344
1980 Ice Age NST P.L. 96-370
1983 Florida NST P.L. 98-11
1983 Potomac Heritage NST P.L. 98-11
1983 Natchez Trace NST P.L. 98-11
1986 Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) NHT P.L. 99-445
1987 Santa Fe NHT P.L. 100-35
1987 Trail of Tears NHT P.L. 100-192
1990 Juan Bautistade Anza NHT P.L. 101-365
1992 California NHT P.L. 102-328
1992 Pony Express NHT P.L. 102-328
1996 Selma to Montgomery NHT P.L. 104-333

The Secretaries are permitted to acquire lands or interest in lands for the National Trails System by written cooperative agreements, through donations, by purchase with donated or appropriated funds, by exchange, and, within limited authority, by condemnation. The Secretaries are directed to cooperate with and encourage states to administer non-federal trail lands through cooperative agreements with landowners and private organizations for the rights-of-way or through states or local governments acquiring such lands or interests.

Organization and Management
Each national trail is administered by either the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture under the authority of the National Trails System Act. The National Park Service administers 15 of the 20 trails in the NTS; the Forest Service administers 4 trails; and Bureau of Land Management administers one. The Secretaries are to administer the federal lands, working cooperatively with agencies managing lands not under their jurisdiction. Management responsibilities vary for the type of trail.

National Scenic Trails. NSTs provide recreation, conservation and enjoyment of significant scenic, historic, natural, or cultural qualities. The use of motorized vehicles on these long-distance trails is generally prohibited, except for the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail which allows: (1) access for emergencies; (2) reasonable access for adjacent landowners (including timber rights); and (3) landowner use on private lands in the right of way, in accordance with regulations established by the administering Secretary.

National Historic Trails. These trails follow travel routes of national historical significance. To qualify for designation as a NHT, the proposed trail must meet all of the following criteria: (1) the route must have documented historical significance as a result of its use and location; (2) there must be evidence of a trail's national significance with respect to American history; and (3) the trail must have significant potential for public recreational use or historical interest. These trails do not have to be continuous, and can include land and water segments, marked highways paralleling the route, and sites that together form a chain or network along the historic route. 6

National Recreation Trails. The Forest Service administers national recreation trails within national forests, while the National Park Service is responsible for the overall administration of the national recreation trails program on all other lands, including coordination of non-federal trails. NRTs are existing trails in or reasonably accessible to urban areas, recognized by the federal government as contributing to the Trails System and are managed by public and private agencies at the local, state and national levels. 7 There are NRTs which provide recreation opportunities for the handicapped, hikers, bicyclists, cross country skiers, and horseback riders.

Connecting and Side Trails. These trails provide public access to nationally designated trails or connections between such trails. They are administered by the Secretary of the Interior, except that the Secretary of Agriculture administers those trails located on national forest lands.

The level of funding continues to be the biggest trail issue. With the exception of the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest NSTs, the National Trails System Act does not provide for sustained finding of designated trails operations, maintenance and development, nor does the Act authorize dedicated finds for land acquisition.

On June 9, 1998, President Clinton signed into law P.L. 105-178, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). TEA-21 is the 6-year reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency of 1991 (ISTEA). 8 ISTEA included the National Recreational Trails Fund Act (16 U.S.C. 1261-1262, which is separate from the National Trails System Act) and established the National Recreational Trails Funding Program (Recreational Trails Program). The Recreational Trails Program provides funds to the states to develop and maintain recreational trails and trail-related facilities for both non-motorized and motorized recreational trail uses. Trail uses include bicycling, hiking, in-line skating, cross-country skiing, snownmobiling, off-road motorcycling, all-terrain vehicle riding, four-wheel driving, or using other off-road motorized vehicles.

Extent and Nature of System. Another issue is the appropriate number of trails. Some ask, "How many national trails are enough?" If the six new long-distance trails considered in the 105th Congress had been added to the National Trails System, the System would extend to every state, except Rhode Island. According to some observers, one of the weaknesses in the NTS, is that "a poor definition exists of which kinds of trails should be part of the System (except for NHT criteria)." 9 While it is relatively easy to add new trails to the System, it has proven more difficult to provide them with adequate staffing and partnership resources.

The 105th Congress considered, but did not enact, legislation to (1) amend the National Trails System by adding "National Discovery Trails" as a new category of long-distance trails (S. 1069, passed Senate), and (2) designate the "American Discovery Trail" (ADT) as the nation's first coast-to-coast National Discovery Trail (H.R. 588). Some have questioned the need for a new category of trails. The ADT, as proposed, would connect several national scenic, historic, and recreation trails, as well as many other local and regional trails.

Finally, some trails supporters have advocated a nationwide promotion to inform the public about the National Trails System. They assert that most Americans are unaware of the Trails System and the breathtaking scenes and journeys into the past which can be experienced along the national scenic and historic trails. However, a significant increase in the number of trails users could overwhelm present staffing and resources.

1 Act of Oct 2, 1968; PL. 90-543, 82 Stat. 919, 16 U.S.C. 124l-51.

2 Donald D. Jackson, "The Long Way 'Round," Wilderness vol. 51, no. 181 (summer, 1988): 19-20.

3 Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. Outdoor Recreation for America. Washington, D.C. January 1962. p.34.

4 Ibid., p 1.

5 Congressional Record, vol. 3, Feb. 8, 1965), p. 2087.



8 P.L. 102-240.

9 Steven Elkinton, "How the National Trails System Has Changed Since 1968," Pathways Across America, (spring 1998): 10.