America’s National Scenic Trails: A Need For Shared Stewardship 

The National Scenic Trails are a network of long-distance hiking trails through some of the country’s most scenic and culturally significant landscapes in the United States. There are currently 11 National Scenic Trails in the United States, which together total nearly 18,000 miles.

The protection and preservation of the trail system is currently accomplished by investment in shared stewardship: collaboration between numerous local, state, federal, and community stakeholders to create integrated resource management, enriched equity and justice, and long-term sustainability in managing these public lands.

The original proponents of National Scenic Trails recognized the value of protecting and preserving natural landscapes for future generations to enjoy.

The National Trails System Act, passed by Congress in 1965, authorized the creation of three types of trails: National Scenic Trails, National Historic Trails, and National Recreation Trails. Sandra Johnson writes that these three types of trails were meant to provide “maximum outdoor recreation potential and for the conservation and enjoyment of the nationally significant scenic, historical, or cultural qualities of the area through which such trails may pass.”

Foundations of the National Scenic Trails System

In 1921, forester, planner, and conservationist Benton MacKaye first introduced his vision of a “long trail” in an article titled “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.” In this article, MacKay proposed the idea of a long trail running through the Appalachian mountains. Over the next 20 years, the concept gained momentum as interest in outdoor recreation and conservation in the United States increased.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a New Deal program founded during the Great Depression, helped to construct many trails in national forests and parks, including sections of what would later become the Appalachian Trail. In the 1950s, the idea of a National Scenic Trails system gained further support from organizations such as the Wilderness Society, the Appalachian Trail Conference (now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy), and the National Parks Association.

These groups advocated for the establishment of a system of scenic trails that would showcase the country’s natural beauty and provide opportunities for recreation and appreciation of the outdoors.

Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail stretches over 2,190 miles along the Appalachian Mountains, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It is one of the most iconic and well-known long-distance hiking trails in the world.

Over the 1920s and 1930s, volunteers cleared the trail’s path, built shelters, and marked the trail with white blazes. The Appalachian Trail was officially completed in 1937, but over the next several decades, the trail underwent improvements and re-routing, with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy working to protect the trail corridor, acquire land, and maintain the trail as a continuous footpath.

In the 1970s, the Appalachian Trail faced challenges from increasing development and land fragmentation. To address these challenges, the ATC and other partners engaged in efforts to protect the trail corridor and establish cooperative agreements with landowners and government agencies.

Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails

In addition to the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide trail are the best-known long-distance hiking trails in America. The Pacific Crest Trail was created as a result of an idea for a continuous footpath along the crest of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains.

In 1968, when the National Scenic Trails System Act was signed into law, the PCT was officially established, and many different entities were requested to protect and maintain the trail in cooperation with federal and state agencies.

The third major trail, the Continental Divide Trail, stretches 3,100 miles along the Rocky Mountains Range, starting in New Mexico and ending in Montana. In 1978, the CDT became designated as a National Scenic Trail under the National Trails System Act, although the CDT wasn’t officially completed as a continuous footpath trail until 2001.

With the establishment of the AT, PCT, CDT, and nine other National Scenic Trails, it became clear to all trail stakeholders that shared stewardship would be needed to protect and preserve the National Scenic Trails for generations to come.

Shared Stewardship and the National Scenic Trails

Shared stewardship refers to the collaborative approach taken by various entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, nonprofit organizations, volunteers, and local communities to manage and protect the trails. This holistic approach involves working together to ensure the long-term sustainability and preservation of the trail while also promoting recreational opportunities and community engagement.

Government Stakeholders

The largest stakeholders in the shared stewardship of the National Scenic Trails are federal agencies, including the National Park Service (NPS), the US Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. They are responsible for trail planning, design, construction, maintenance, and managing access, permits, and regulations.

State agencies have jurisdiction over certain sections of the National Scenic Trails that pass through state lands or state parks. They collaborate with federal agencies to manage these sections, including helping with trail maintenance, signage, and resource protection.

An example of Federal/State collaboration is the management of state-listed rare species of plants and animals on the AT, as relatively few species along the corridor are federally listed as endangered. As part of the collaboration, the NPS (a federal agency) will inventory, monitor, and manage state and locally listed species in a manner similar to its treatment of federally listed species to the greatest extent possible.

In addition to collaborating with federal agencies, the state plays a role in promoting the trails and providing outreach to the local communities and trail users.

Community Stakeholders

Other collaborating stakeholders include local communities, non-profit groups, and volunteers. Local communities provide support through trailhead and campground management, trail promotion, economic development, and engagement with trail users. Local communities and trail users interact most often with nonprofit organizations such as trail associations, conservancies, and other advocacy groups that play a crucial role in the shared stewardship of the National Scenic Trails.

Nonprofit groups provide volunteer efforts for trail maintenance, education and outreach to trail users, fundraising for trail improvements, and advocacy for trail protection and management. Nonprofit organizations also work in partnership with federal agencies, state agencies, and local communities to enhance the stewardship of the trails.

Nonprofits on the Triple Crown Trails

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Pacific Crest Trail Association, and Continental Divide Trail Coalition are all nonprofit organizations that partner with volunteers to protect and manage the trail.

Through programs and partnerships, the ATC alone supports over 6,000 volunteers and 30 trail-maintaining clubs that are responsible for most of the day-to-day work of maintaining and caring for the AT and its surrounding lands. Volunteers work hand in hand with nonprofit agencies, contributing their time, skills, and passion to help with trail maintenance and construction, as well as providing education and outreach to other trail users.

The 2009 Continental Divide National Scenic Trail Comprehensive Plan states that “federal agency unit managers are to use volunteers and volunteer organizations in planning, developing, maintaining, and managing the CDNST,” showing the collaboration between federal agencies and volunteers is vital to the success of trail management.

All of these stakeholders work simultaneously to protect, manage, and maintain these iconic trails.

Shared Stewardship and Integrated Resource Management

Shared stewardship is an efficient management practice that utilizes shared resources, knowledge, and expertise. It is essential because the collaboration and participation between various stakeholders leads to a more inclusive and informed decision-making process, resulting in better outcomes for the environment, communities, and economies.

An important aspect of shared stewardship is integrated resource management, where strategies for managing natural resources are combined to consider ecological, social, and economic factors.

On the Appalachian Trail, monitoring, regulation, and protection of water quality is a responsibility shared by local, state, and federal agencies that have mandates for land use planning, natural resource management, and environmental protection. In the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Resource Management Plan, cooperative activities of water management include consulting with federal, state, local, and Native American agencies on planned upstream activities, water permit applications, and water quality issues of concern to the NPS.

Agencies also cooperate by providing water quality monitoring data to the EPS’s Water Quality Storage which serves as the primary national repository for stream and lake water quality data. Cooperation between Federal and local governments managing the water on the AT is one example of integrated resource management, which allows for a more holistic and comprehensive approach to management.

Shared Stewardship on the PCT

Another example of cooperation is in an area of the PCT where 10 miles of the trail crosses through Washington State Department of Natural Resources lands. This area is officially managed by the USFS, but the Washington State DNR works with the PCTA and the Forest Service when issues arise concerning the surrounding lands. According to the Forest Service, these lands are managed primarily for timber revenue, but because the Washington State DNR recognizes the public value of the PCT, they “strive to minimize the negative impacts that their timber management practices might have on trail users.”

In 2015, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the Forest Service Pacific Southwest Regional Office, and the Cleveland National Forest launched the Crest Runner program. Crest Runners have duties similar to wilderness rangers: they talk with visitors, provide Leave No Trace education, monitor sites along the trail, and perform light maintenance and restoration work.

Additionally, the PCTA works with some agency partners to employ volunteer trailhead hosts and rangers. These volunteers help educate trail users and monitor and report sites that experience significant impacts. The combination of the federal Crest Runners program, along with volunteers hired by the PCTA allows for a pooling of knowledge and expertise, leading to more efficient and effective management practices.

Equity and Inclusivity in Resource Management

Equity and justice are also promoted through shared stewardship by ensuring diverse voices are heard and considered in the decision-making process. The process empowers local communities, Indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups who may have traditional knowledge and deep connections to the land.

Along the Pacific Crest Trail, there is a 25-mile section that crosses the Warm Springs Indian Reservation between Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson. The Wasco, Tenino, and Paiute tribes work with the PCTA and Forest Service when issues arise concerning the surrounding lands. In recent years these partners have also collaborated on programs such as a Warm Springs PCT Youth Crew.

Shared stewardship can also help address historic inequalities and injustices related to resource management by promoting more inclusive and equitable approaches to decision-making and resource allocation. In the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Resource Management Plan, the ATC recognizes its obligation to protect cultural resources as an integral part of the trail environment.

Per the Appalachian Trail Resource Management Plan, if protection or use of the trail has the potential to affect a cultural resource site, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy will enter into formal consultation procedures with the involved agency partners, Trail-maintaining clubs, and the State Historic Preservation Office before undertaking any activity that could adversely affect a significant or potentially significant cultural resource.


The longevity of the National Scenic Trails required collaboration among government entities, local communities, volunteers, and trail users to ensure a long-term perspective of sustainability and preservation. The use of shared stewardship through integrated resource management, a lens of equity and justice, and an overall holistic viewpoint allows for the successful management of National Scenic Trails.

Ultimately, shared stewardship of the National Scenic Trails can lead to better outcomes for the environment, communities, and economies by engaging diverse stakeholders in decision-making processes and fostering inclusive and sustainable management practices for generations of hikers to come.

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Comments 3

  • John Pettey : Apr 27th

    This is an incredibly well-written overview of a complex topic. If you are not already planning it, you should consider writing as a profession.

  • Russ Hobgood : Apr 27th

    Hannah. You are well spoken on a multi faceted subject. There is far more to the subject than most realize and you covered it well. The inter-connection of environment and the life it sustains is amazing. I hope you keep after these issues as your passion shows in your writing.

    Take care, best of trail luck. By the way, we passed on the AT, you NOBO, I SOBO just south of Rockfish Gap.

  • Nicole : May 12th

    The decisions we have to make on the trail, when our only food options are in our packs…:). Sweaty cheese, water with flies in it, sandy soup….it’s all good!


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