Closing the Gaps in Our National Scenic Trails: An Interview with Jim Kern
“The cause that I am focused on for whatever years I have remaining is to see that Congress do for the other National Scenic Trails what it has done for the Appalachian Trail.”
Our nation is filled with a multitude of long trails that bring endless opportunities to both backpackers and day hikers alike. Eleven of these trails have been designated National Scenic Trails, and serve as recreational havens for “those who want to explore America’s natural landscape.” With the Appalachian Trail being the first, and possibly best known, it’s no wonder that our federal government helped tremendously to ensure a protected corridor straight from Georgia to Maine. This path is almost seamless and has been preserved for future generations to enjoy the trail as it is today.
However, many don’t realize that the Appalachian Trail is a special case. The ten other National Scenic Trails haven’t received the same treatment or recognition as their older sibling, leaving 4,000 miles of gaps throughout our trail system.
Jim Kern is on a mission to bring light to this issue. As one of our nation’s biggest activists for trails, he has dedicated his life to preserving and advocating for trails throughout America. He is the founder of the Florida Trail Association (1966), co-founder of the American Hiking Society (1976), founding publisher of American Hiker Magazine, and an accomplished wildlife photographer.
I chatted with Jim about his history working for our nation’s trails, and the work that still needs to be done to ensure the protection of US National Scenic Trails for generations to come.
Responses have been edited for length/clarity
The Trek: How did you first become interested in the outdoors?
Jim: I first got interested in nature when I was living in northeastern New Jersey in a small town close to the George Washington Bridge. Our town had a patch of woods not very big, but to me at that time, when I was in sixth grade, I thought it was substantial enough to almost get lost in. One day when I was out hiking, I saw an unusual bird and it really was a major experience in my life. The school principal was interested in birds and I thought I could maybe get some brownie points if I went to her and asked about it. She got out this big book and we found out that it was a rose-breasted grosbeak. That experience led me into birding and that led into scouting and I started to get merit badges and it just took off from there.
T: Can you tell me about the founding of the Florida Trail?
J: In 1956, my wife and our son met my parents and my brother for a family vacation in Nantahala Village in North Carolina. Things very quickly got kinda slow so I suggested to my brother that we take a hike and I said why don’t we hike on the Appalachian Trail. I don’t know where that idea came from but we were totally unprepared. That was the beginning of hiking for me in July 1961. We went to the ranger’s office to get a permit to hike from Fontana Dam to Clingmans Dome They gave me a little map that was about 6×8 inches…. you can just imagine the detail on that.
The hike ended up being a nightmare. We took wool blankets off the beds, put some canned food in a bandolier, slung them over our shoulders, and set out. We clearly were not going to make it to the next lean-to before it got dark. We had no flashlights and it was starting to rain. So we had to lie down on the ground with no tarp, no tent. It was truly a nightmare, but after that event I began wondering if we had a long trail back home in Florida. It turned out that we did not, so I decided that I would find the routing for a long trail through the undeveloped portions of the state. I walked 120 miles up through the state of Florida and got the Miami Herald to do a Sunday supplement story about the hike. With that, the Florida Trail was off and running with 70 members in the fall of 1966. We grew from there, and about five years later we could afford an employee. Not too long after that we bought a piece of land for an office in Gainesville. We currently have just under 5,000 members of the Florida Trail Association and they help maintain and care for the trail.
T: What is the role and purpose of the Florida Trail?
J: The state and federal government were not involved in the beginning—it was a private sector thing for quite a few years. In 1968 Congress passed the National Trails System Act, which had two primary purposes: 1.The Appalachian Trail was under a lot of pressure to remain continuous because of development along the route and constant rerouting, and 2. to provide a way that other long trails could become designated as a National Scenic Trail.
Congress backed the idea of the magnificent Appalachian Trail by passing this bill. When President Johnson signed it into law, the US Parks Department was authorized to purchase the remaining one-third of the AT. Two-thirds of it were on public lands, a third of it—about 700 miles—was not. We had private property owners that had granted easements to let the AT come through and the relocations were becoming a huge burden, so Congress acted and over the next 30 years the Parks Department acquired the rest of the land in what was the largest acquisition in history for the Park Service. They acquired 2,500 different partials and now the Appalachian Trail is continuous from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
This leads to the thing that preoccupies me today, Congress did not properly fund the other ten trails and did not properly give them the taking authority of the Constitution, and so all ten are incomplete. All ten have gaps. My Florida Trail is one of those and out of a 1,300-mile trail, we have about 300 miles unfinished. That means that the hiker gets out on paved road and walks a total of 300 miles in order to get from the Big Cypress National Preserve to Gulf Islands National Seashore. 1,000 miles of the trail have been built by volunteers, but 300 miles are gaps. The cause that I am focused on for whatever years I have remaining is to see that Congress do for the other National Scenic Trails what it has done for the Appalachian Trail.
T: 300 miles is a significant gap, and that would be awesome if we could get that finished.
J: It is, but the other ten have problems at least as great. With 300 out of 1,300 miles, we can say that the Florida Trail is 73% complete. Congress acted on the Appalachian Trail when it was only 66% completed. When I say completed, I don’t mean that there wasn’t a treadway for the hiker to go on, I mean secure for posterity. Even on the Pacific Crest Trail, where you can hike from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, 10% of that trail is incomplete and not secure to posterity.
T: Do you know an estimate of how many miles are incomplete and not secure throughout all the National Scenic Trails?
J: If you add up all the miles of all the trails (not including the Appalachian Trail since that is protected), we get over 16,000 miles. Of those 16,000 miles of National Scenic Trails, we are missing 25%—about 4,000 miles.
T: What are the current roadblocks preventing the completion of the National Scenic Trails? How can the hiking community help bridge these gaps?
J: There is the idea throughout much of trail leadership that we can complete these trails through public and private partnerships alone. I don’t see how that’s possible—and I don’t think that Congress believes it’s possible either, otherwise in 1968 Congress wouldn’t have given the Appalachian Trail the things that trails need. One of those things is sufficient money to buy the right of way. For every highway, gas line, power line, etc., the government must come up with the money needed to buy the land. Then they revert to the US Constitution, which gives them the power of eminent domain.
Eminent domain is not a popular phrase, especially if your land has been taken against your will. Even if it’s for a 600-foot wide interstate, you may have had a farm there. And then the government came along and took the heart right out of your 500 acres. So this is something that the founders had to deal with, and we use frequently. It goes on all the time—almost every time you see a new road going up. These things are going on around us all the time and often the person may grumble, but when he or she gets the check and they take it to the bank, it helps heal the wound. And if you don’t like the amount you are free to take the government to court, and the sums are reviewed by a jury. The government’s trying to buy your land for the best price they can, but you have to be satisfied, or you have the right to a court hearing. Your peers and the court help decide what’s a fair amount.
When the Appalachian Trail was acquired, there were 2,550 separate takings by eminent domain from Georgia to Maine—the largest taking process in the history of the Park Service. It took 30 years to do this. The Park Service spent 200 million dollars buying this land—that may seem like a huge sum, but state spends hundreds of millions on highways every year. You have to put everything into perspective.
In the completing of the Appalachian Trail, eminent domain was used 400 times out of 2,550 takings. Of the 400 times eminent domain was used, they were adversarial 100 times, which is to say that the owner was angry, went to court, or objected to the taking. Three million people set foot on the Appalachian Trail last year, so you have to look at the public good. The Constitution says that you can’t take the land for private purposes—it has to be for public good. Three million people use the Appalachian Trail in some way or another every year, and 100 people have fought the taking.
That in a nutshell is what I think is the bugaboo from my hiking friends. Leadership in much of the clubs think they’re going to finish their trail without eminent domain, in spite of the fact that every long, thin corridor absolutely must use it. My good friends think that they can complete their trails without it, and I think history speaks loudly and that we should pay attention to the history of the Appalachian Trail.
T: Has eminent domain been used frequently for hiking trails other than the AT?
J: This is referenced in an article about the founding of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. GSMNP is the most visited national park in the country, but about 1,100 families were asked to leave those hollows and move on because we wanted a national park there.
It’s a little different on a hiking trail because hiking trails don’t really want to go through anybody’s house. They want to be up and on the ridge. The attorney that represented the Forest Service and did about one-fourth of the acquisitions for the Appalachian Trail, told me that to his knowledge no one was asked to leave their house when we acquired the right-of-way for the Appalachian Trail. We want to put the trail in the most remote corners that we can find.
T: When the issue of our incomplete National Scenic Trails has been brought in front of politicians, have they been receptive to these ideas?
J: Politicians want this issue to go away. They have nothing to gain by getting a half a dozen nasty letters about how “this trail wants to come through my property and I want you to stop them.” It’s like the third rail—like you’re going to get electrocuted if you touch it.
T: If politicians are essentially opposed to this issue, what would you suggest hikers do?
J: Please go to americanhiking.org and sign the petition. Politicians read their mail and they react to voters. If a guy from his district writes a nasty letter that says “get those hikers out of my backyard,” he’s going to read that letter. But if he gets ten letters from hikers that say “the Florida Trail is a great recreational asset for the state of Florida, please support it,” let me tell you he’s going to listen. It’s all about the votes—it’s not even about money. They’ve spent the money to get elected; if they want to keep their job they have to please their voters.
T: For people interested in their local trail club or closest National Scenic Trail organization—and becoming an activist for those wild spaces—do you have suggestions for getting involved?
J: Yes, of course. We have chapters for the Florida Trail, and I would assume that many other National Scenic Trails would have something similar. A good way to start is to go to the website, find out which chapter serves your locale, and go to a meeting. Another thing you can do is find out when meetings are each year. There could be business meetings, outings, or scheduled activities. For me personally, if a person likes to go hiking on a footpath, there’s a good chance I’m going to like them. So you can find camaraderie through these chapters, and that’s true for all 11 National Scenic Trails and the other hundred or so hiking clubs around the country.
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