The new, sweeping conservation act is—and isn’t—helping the national trail system.
The new, sweeping conservation act is—and isn’t—helping the national trail system. (Photo: ale & Bryann DeZeeuw, Provided B)

The New Conservation Act Isn’t Enough for Trails

The sweeping John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act could mean great things for our national trail system, but it may take a while

The new, sweeping conservation act is—and isn’t—helping the national trail system.
ale & Bryann DeZeeuw, Provided B(Photo)

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Last month, after both House and Senate approval, the president signed into law the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. This sweeping act, cosponsored by senators Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), packaged together a raft of over 130 conservation bills addressing important issues such as the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a national volcano-monitoring system, and protections against mineral extraction that could harm national parks.

The Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, known in political circles as S.47, has been widely lauded for its expansive scope. A press release issued by Senator Cantwell called it “a key tool to continue to solve our problems of access to public lands, particularly in parts of the country where the access to those public lands is being eroded by development.”

It’s also a relief for stewards of the North Country Scenic Trail (NCT), the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, and the American Discovery Trail (ADT), three of our nation’s longest and most diverse trails, which will see significant development as a result of the act.

But difficult issues remain concerning how that development will be funded and who, if anyone, will be responsible for ensuring the longevity of these trails. S.47 does not allocate any money for newly approved signs on the ADT. Nor does it include federal funds for new historical markers on the Lewis and Clark Trail or the resources to acquire land and build the extensions needed on the NCT. There is no funding for additional work crews, nor allowances for additional staff members for any of the trails, either.

And that, in turn, raises perhaps the hardest question of all: Will these trails ever be completed?

First proposed in 1966, the NCT, one of 11 national scenic trails designated by Congress, was originally envisioned as an approximately 4,500-mile footpath connecting the Lewis and Clark Trail in North Dakota with the Appalachian Trail in Vermont. But as we reported last year, political wrangling over the acquisition of public land meant that by the time the trail received full congressional approval in 1980, its distance had been truncated by more 1,300 miles, with its eastern terminus now located in New York state.

However, as construction of the trail began, crews found that part of its approved route passed through untenable swampland. Meanwhile, a shift in public opinion opened up the possibility of extending the eastern terminus of the trail back to the AT. That led both the National Park Service and the North Country Trail Association (NCTA) to request a formal reroute of the trail in the early 2000s.

Both chambers of Congress are required to approve a route-adjustment act. But a series of political bungles stalled any such approval. For a moment, it looked like approval might finally arrive last spring, but the act never made it beyond the House Committee of Natural Resources for a vote.

This year, Senators Cantwell and Murkowski wrapped the bill to reroute the NCT into the larger conservation act, which was swiftly approved by both chambers of Congress and then the president.

“It’s pretty amazing to think that this approval has literally been decades and decades in the making,” NCTA executive director Andrea Ketchman told me by phone last week. “What we now have is a trail that is much more visionary and in keeping with the kind of trail systems the crafters of the original National Trail Systems Act had in mind.”

For the ADT, a 6,800-mile transcontinental trail that links national scenic, historic, and recreational trails, as well as national parks, forests, and major urban areas, from Delaware to California, the law authorizes signage. That’s a crucial development for anyone contemplating a hike on the ADT, where large sections of the trail are unmarked, says American Discovery Trail Society (ADTS) vice president Bob Palin.

In some places, the ADT follows existing blazed trails like Ohio’s Buckeye Trail. But huge swaths of the trail’s western portion, particularly in Utah and Nevada, are entirely unmarked. Instead, hikers are limited to following turn-by-turn instructions and GPS files. “And that’s worrisome, of course, because those are also the [most] remote sections of the entire trail,” says Palin.

Finally, S.47 extends the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail by 2,100 miles, making its total length 4,900 miles and relocating its eastern terminus from Wood River, Illinois, to the Ohio River in Pittsburgh.

Technically, the provisions approved by the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act will take effect mid-May. Realistically, it will be longer before the hiking public can enjoy them.

If the act is going to have real teeth, representatives say, Capitol Hill is also going to have to come up with some serious cash.

Andrea Ketchman of the NCTA says it’ll undoubtedly be years before backpackers can complete an entirely off-road thru-hike of the NCT. Her organization has just begun working with regional partners to begin the process of acquiring the lands needed to reroute—and eventually complete—the trail. 

“This is a major land-acquisition process, involving thousands of landowners with whom we still need to develop relationships,” she said. “We’re going to have to start with individual handshake agreements, brokered by local land trusts, and neighbor-to-neighbor conversations before we can even start talking about permanent easements for the trail.”

Even something seemingly as simple as producing signage for the ADT will be a protracted process, says Palin.

“Each individual manager of the land—each Bureau of Land Management unit, each park unit, each forest unit—has its own policies, and its superintendent has complete control over the land. We’ll have to negotiate individually with each one,” he says.

Before that can happen, any proposed sign will have to be approved by the Department of the Interior. Palin admits the ADT has “no idea how long that will take.”

Ashley Danielson, the volunteer and partnership specialist for the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail, expects a similarly amorphous timeline for that trail. The National Park Service is hoping to complete a strategic plan for the extension in the coming year but can’t predict when or how its implementation will occur.

“It’s always an ongoing process,” she says. “For us, there is never a ‘done’ but, instead, new projects and new ideas that keep us moving forward.”

The biggest rub of all for these three trails may well be what the conservation act doesn’t include—the resources needed to make these additions a reality.

Only six national scenic trails are administered by the National Park Service. The NCT is not one of them. And that raises concerns about its future sustainability. (Currently, the National Park Service only owns 88 miles of the trail. The rest is protected by land-trust agreements.) Meanwhile, the ADT is not currently considered part of our national trail system, which means it relies entirely on its volunteer organization and often falls through the cracks of any governmental consideration, largely because of its hybrid nature.

“There’s no category for our trail currently. We’re not a historic trail. We’re not a scenic or recreational trail either,” says Palin of the ADT. “We’d like to correct that.”

A bill exists to establish a fourth category of national trails for paths like the ADT, but it’s largely been ignored by Congress. The signs, say Palin, have been the best practical stopgap the ADTS could muster for now.

All three representatives I spoke with agree that this is a serious limitation of S.47. If the act is going to have real teeth, they say, Capitol Hill is also going to have to come up with some serious cash.

At least one elected official agrees. Senator Cantwell, an S.47 cosponsor, believes Congress is on the hook for future budgeting, particularly where access to public lands and the outdoor economy is concerned.

“For something that important, let’s pay more attention,” she urged legislators from the Senate floor. “Let’s give the tools to local communities and to these resources to manage this, to give more access to the American people, to do the things that will help us grow jobs and help us recreate for the future and preserve against a very challenging and threatening climate.”

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