The Great Trail Debate: Why Wilderness Needs More Trails

Should we ban the construction of any more trails into the wilderness? Robert Moor, author of the new book, 'On Trails,' says we should build more.

Aug 13, 2016
Outside Magazine

Trails can be sustainably planned to minimize human impact in areas that will get a lot of visitors.    Photo: Martin McCarthy/iStock

Back in 1930, Bob Marshall—legendary outdoorsman, bestselling author, and grandpappy of the environmental movement—set out to define what the wilderness is. He settled on two basic preconditions: “first, that it requires anyone who exists in it to depend exclusively on his own effort for survival; and second, that it preserves as nearly as possible the primitive environment.” This means that all roads, mechanical transportation, and human habitation would be forbidden. But according to Marshall, trails—the most ‘primitive’ of all our myriad inventions—would be “entirely permissible.”

This belief was later reflected in the first version of the National Wilderness Preservation Act, introduced to the Senate in 1957, which defines wilderness as a place where “man” is “a wanderer who visits but does not remain and whose travels leave only trails.” That’s the thing about trails: if enough people visit a piece of land, they are going to make them. It’s what we as a species—we as animals—instinctively do. The act of creating and following trails is one of the oldest and most profound ways that we make sense of this chaotic planet we all live on.

The question, then, is not whether we want to make trails, but how—with our feet, or with our hands? In other words, do we want to create them unconsciously and with little foresight? Or do we want to build them deliberately, with the aim of making them as sustainable as possible? 

Up until the 1970s, trails were often built along the paths of least resistance. This was fine until the backpacking boom of the 1970s, when hordes of hikers wearing rubber-soled boots (called “waffle stompers”) swarmed our most popular trails, churning up the soil and accelerating erosion. In response, trail-builders learned to design sustainable trails that would shed water in a slow, controlled manner. For the most part, that project has succeeded; I would hate to see what my favorite mountains would look like had we not made the shift to sustainable trail design.

Despite our best efforts, many conservationists still worry that our most popular wild spaces are being ‘loved to death.’ In light of these concerns, I fully understand why some people don’t want any new wilderness trails. Trails have their downsides: they can compact the soil, blocking subterranean water flow and choking tree roots; they can fragment ecosystems; they can scare off bears and wolves; they tend to collect litter at their edges. Some people, quite fairly, see them as scars upon the otherwise pristine wilderness. And in some sense, that’s true: a trail, when you get right down to it, is little more than a long, precisely wrought stretch of dead ground. 

But I suspect that deep down, the real reason certain outdoorspeople dislike trails is because they’re reminders of the existence of other people. That, I would argue, is exactly the wrong reason to oppose them. Because the only thing that is going to save wilderness from people with tree saws and oil drills and cement trucks are other people—people who love wild land for its beauty, its sense of freedom, and its ecological complexity, rather than for its monetary worth.

I’ll admit that I am biased: I have a special love for trails. (Hell, I just wrote a whole book about them.) I like they way they make it easier to walk. I like the way they lessen the burden of wayfinding, freeing up my brain for deeper thought. I like the way they keep me from getting lost and falling into a pit of quicksand. Perhaps most of all, I like how trails efficiently allow us to visit the wilderness without trampling it all to dust. 

Consequently, trails have also become one of our best methods for protecting a patch of wilderness. A particularly vivid example: In 1980, a man named Hap Wilson—then a 25-year-old canoe bum and burgeoning eco-warrior—was hired to map out the old canoe routes and portage trails through the waterways in northeastern Ontario’s Temagami region. At the time, logging companies were clear-cutting the Temagami’s old-growth forests under the (mostly correct) assumption that paddlers never stray far from the waterways, and no one would mourn the loss of those ancient trees. Outraged, Wilson decided to monkey-wrench the process. At night, he snuck into the Ministry of Natural Resources office and foraged through timber allocation maps to determine which lands were slated to be clear-cut. Then during the day, he would clear hiking trails into those blocks of land. 

“Once the trail was established, the people came, and they walked through a forest they would not normally have opportunity to see up close,” he writes in his book, Trails and Tribulations: Confessions of a Wilderness Pathfinder. “The existence of the trail created its own lobbying group.”

Using this method—aided by an unnamed group of eco-radicals, who spiked trees, blockaded roads, and destroyed logging bridges—Wilson and other members of the Temagami Wilderness Society were able to protect an area called the Wakimika Triangle, the largest remaining stand of old-growth red and white pines in the world. It was later folded into the park system, and has remained intact to this day. Wilson has now repeated this process—building trails, attracting hikers, preserving wilderness—all over Ontario. 

In addition to preserving wilderness areas, hiking trails have even been used to actually create new ones. Benton MacKaye, the founder of the Appalachian Trail, originally envisioned the AT as the “backbone of a publicly owned 'super national forest' stretching from Maine to Georgia,” according to his biographer, Larry Anderson. Incredibly, that dream eventually came true. Back in those days, the trail ran through long stretches of farmland and heavily logged timberland—what would today be regarded as decidedly un-wild land. But in 1978, under President Jimmy Carter, the federal government began spending hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase new lands and re-route the trail so we could preserve the land surrounding America’s most iconic footpath. As a result of this herculean effort, today, for all but a few of its miles, the AT is jacketed by a thousand-foot corridor of protected wilderness. (This is sometimes referred to as “the longest, skinniest part of America’s national park system.”) Mackaye’s genius was to recognize that, rather than a scar, a trail can act as a backbone around which wilderness can grow.

Call me anthropocentric, or pathological, but I believe in the promise of smart design and elegant infrastructure. I believe in seeking balance over (doomed) prohibition or (damned) profligacy. I believe that the earth is most beautiful when people walk lightly upon it, in admiration and awe, rather than trampling it widely or not walking upon it at all. All of which is to say: I believe—deeply, fervently, wildly—in trails. 

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