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National Trails System A group of students working for the Minnesota Conservation Corp takes a break in trailbuilding activities in Hubbard County, Minnesota. This crew was hired with a grant from the State of Minnesota in October 2005.  Photo courtesy NCTA.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is a trail?
  2. What is a "national trail?"
  3. Why is the Federal Government involved in trails?
  4. What is the difference between administration and
       management of National Scenic and National Historic
  5. What Federal agencies are responsible for administering
  6. Do States get involved in the national trails?
  7. Who builds and manages trails?
  8. Where can I get funds for my trail?
  9. Where can I get additional information?

1. What is a trail?
There is no universal legal definition of a trail in the United States. One of the best, used for national recreation trails, is: ... a travel way established either through construction or use which is passable by at least one or more of the following, including but not limited to: foot traffic, stock, watercraft, bicycles, in-line skates, wheelchairs, cross-country skis, off-road recreation vehicles such as motorcycles, snowmobiles, ATVs, and 4-wheel drive vehicles.

2. What is a "national trail?"
National trails are officially established under the authorities of the National Trails System Act (16 USC 1241-51). There are several types:

National scenic trails are 100 miles or longer, continuous, primarily non-motorized routes of outstanding recreation opportunity. Such trails are established by Act of Congress.

National historic trails commemorate historic (and prehistoric) routes of travel that are of significance to the entire Nation. They must meet all three criteria listed in Section 5(b)(11) of the National Trails System Act. Such trails are established by Act of Congress.

National recreation trails, also authorized in the National Trails System Act, are existing regional and local trails recognized by either the Secretary of Agriculture or the Secretary of the Interior upon application.

3. Why is the Federal Government involved in trails?
Until 1968, the only Federal role in trails was to build and maintain those on Federal lands. The National Trails System Act of 1968 made it Federal policy to recognize and promote trails by providing financial assistance, support of volunteers, coordination with States, and other authorities. As a result, 11 national scenic trails (NSTs) and 19 national historic trails (NHTs) have been established by law (and are administered by the National Park Service, the USDA Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, depending on the trail); almost 1,300 national recreation trails have been recognized by the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior; and seven side-and-connecting trails have also been certified. In addition, other Federal statutes support and fund trails through programs such as FHWA's Recreational Trails Program and Transportation Enhancements programs, HUD block grants, and the NPS Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program.

4. What is the difference between administration and management of National Scenic and National Historic Trails?

Trail-wide coordination -- Each National Trail, established by law, is assigned for administration to one or two Federal agencies by either the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture, as designated by Congress. Subject to available funding, the administering agencies exercise trail-wide responsibilities under the Act for that specific trail. Such responsibilities include coordination among and between agencies and partner organizations in planning, marking, certification, resource preservation and protection, interpretation, cooperative / interagency agreements, and financial assistance to other cooperating government agencies, landowners, interest groups, and individuals.

On-site jurisdiction -- Various government and private entities own or manage lands along each National Trail. Management responsibilities often include inventorying of resources and mapping, planning and development of trail segments or sites, compliance, provision of appropriate public access, site interpretation, trail maintenance, marking, resource preservation and protection, viewshed protection, and management of visitor use.

5. What Federal agencies are responsible for administering trails?
Every land-managing Federal agency has trails that provide access to their lands and waters. The 30 NSTs and NHTs created as part of the National Trails System cross numerous jurisdictions, with various segments managed by a variety of land owners or agencies. Each NHT and NST, however, is officially administered by the following agency or agencies:

Trail Name Year Est'd Authorized
Length (miles)
Adm. Agency
Appalachian NST 1968 2,158 NPS
Pacific Crest NST 1968 2,638 USDA-FS
Continental Divide NST 1978 3,100 USDA-FS
Oregon NHT 1978 2,170 NPS
Mormon Pioneer NHT 1978 1,300 NPS
Lewis and Clark NHT 1978 3,700 NPS
Iditarod NHT 1978 2,350 BLM
North Country NST 1980 3,200 NPS
Overmountain Victory
1980 275 NPS
Ice Age NST 1980 1,000 NPS
Florida NST 1983 1,300 USDA-FS
Potomac Heritage NST 1983 700 NPS
Natchez Trace NST 1983 95 NPS
Nez Perce (Nee-me-poo)
1986 1,170 USDA-FS
Santa Fe NHT 1987 1,203 NPS
Trail of Tears NHT 1987 5,045 (1) NPS
Juan Bautista de Anza
1990 1,200 NPS
California NHT 1992 5,665 NPS
Pony Express NHT 1992 1,966 NPS
Selma to Montgomery
1996 54 NPS
El Camino Real de
      Tierra Adentro NHT
2000 404 NPS & BLM
Ala Kahakai NHT 2000 175 NPS
Old Spanish NHT 2002 2,700 NPS & BLM
El Camino Real de
      los Tejas NHT
2004 2,580 NPS
Captain John Smith
      Chesapeake NHT
2006 3,000 NPS
Star-Spangled Banner
2008  290 NPS
Arizona NST 2009  761 USDA-FS
New England NST 2009  190 NPS
      Revolutionary Route               NHT
2009  2,020 NPS
Pacific Northwest NST 2009  1,200 USDA-FS

(1) Includes both overland and water routes between Tennessee and Oklahoma.


6. Do States get involved in the national trails?
States vary widely in their interest in and support of national trails. Some have statutes modeled on the National Trails System Act; many have statewide trail plans and state trail coordinators. Most Federal NSTs and NHTs have ongoing cooperative agreements with States for the provision of motor tour route signs, law enforcement services, land protection, and other areas of common interest. Some States have dedicated revenue sources for trails and others subsidize trail maintenance because of the proven economic benefits these trails bring the State. For example, every State along the Lewis and Clark NHT organized a state council to help commemorate the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in the years 2003-6.

7. Who builds and manages trails?
Most trails in America are publicly built and managed. However, most of the enduring ones occur in a partnership between agencies and concerned citizens. A classic of this kind is the Appalachian National Scenic Trail where thousands of volunteers each year contribute hundreds of thousands of hours to keep this trail clear, safe, well-marked, and well-monitored. The recent trend of converting abandoned railroads to recreational trails has been fostered by the largest national trails organization -- the 75,000-member Rails-to-Trails Conservancy -- linking citizen advocacy with state and county projects that have captured over 10,000 miles of former railbeds for trails.

8. Where can I get funds for my trail?
Funding for trails is now available from many sources. Some of the operating funds for each of the NSTs and NHTs can be made available through cooperative agreements to trail partner organizations. Many national trails have access to challenge cost-share project funds for trail projects.

The largest investment in trail projects since 1992 has come through the Department of Transportation through Federal transportation funding programs. For example, the Transportation Enhancements Program provided well over $1 billion for bicycle and pedestrian transportation projects (including many transportation trails), and the Recreational Trails Program provided $200 million for all kinds of recreational trails. There are many other potential funding sources for trails, including charitable foundations, corporations, permits and fees, local excise taxes, and dedicated funds.

9. Where can I get additional information?

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