The PCT’s Comprehensive Management Plan: a look into trail history

Standing at the Mexican border staring towards Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail I noticed that the trail was established by an act of congress on October 8, 1968.  That got me wondering how an idea as abstract as the PCT could be defined by a group of people so dense as government officials.  Looking for that answer I turned to the Comprehensive Management Plan.  While it wouldn’t get approved until January of 1982, 13 years after the National Trails System Act was passed, it is none-the-less the original organizational document for the PCT as it stands under the authority of US Forest Service.   The plan coordinates the various managing agencies and lays the groundwork for a cohesive trail experience.  And it is a fascinating look into the intricacies of the trail.

The plan is a surprisingly good place to start for anyone looking for a little history of the trail (shoutout to all the forgotten outdoorsmen), an introduction to the natural and historical sites (there were 44 registered national historic landmarks within 10 miles of the trail when drafted, undoubtedly more now), and curious as to just what exactly the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail is meant to be (primitive sections having usually less than six parties per day encountered on the trail and less than three parties visible at any campsite).

From the very first sentence we see that the document was conceived in a different era.  Contrary to the way over 90% of thruhikers see the trail today the trail is consistently described as extending from Canada to Mexico.  Blasphemy I tell you.  Walking with the sun in your eyes, who wants to do that.  

A little more research tells me that this is in fact how the trail had been described since it’s inception.  Nature Magazine in 1935 described the signing of the trail, expected to happen in 1936-37, as going from British Colombia to Mexico.  The father of the trail himself Clinton C. Clarke in his 1945 guide “The Pacific Crest Trailway” beautifully introduced the trail thusly: “From Canada southward for 1,600 miles the explorer can each night open his sleeping-bag under a pine tree on a mountainside in sight of snowy peaks, in an environment of solitude except for the singing of birds, the tinkling of running waters, and the humming of the wind through the pines.”  Clarke even goes on to say “Because of the more extensive snow and ice fields on the north walls of peaks, the terrain is more impressive when traversed southward.”  He almost has me rethinking having done a nobo.  However when it came down to actually proving the trail concept the YMCA PCT relays from 1935-38 left from Campo on their way up to Canada.  So maybe the consensus of nobo as the better experience isn’t completely off base.

One of the most striking features of the document is just how self-important it feels.  The trail ascribes itself with “national significance” despite not becoming officially complete for another 11 years and admitting that it was apparent many sections were only getting very light use.  Thirty some years on however I can give that a pass.  The national significance can even be seen as humble.  The trail now draws from a global user base and no sections can be described as only getting very light use.  Thanks Cheryl.

I understand that concessions must be made to achieve a continuous trail through so many different jurisdictions.  Reading about those concessions can be a little depressing.  The official stance on management of the trail in nonwilderness areas is not for the most undeveloped experience possible.  Instead the plan states “viewing and understanding resource management and other cultural activities are considered to be part of the normal character of the trail.”  Not quite the same as an environment of solitude envisioned desired by Clarke.  

The plan goes even further in saying “Some activities such as road construction, logging, prescribed burning, herbicide application, mining, etc., will require considerable informational and interpretive skills to be placed in a positive perspective from the standpoint of the user.” Um. right.  I can’t say the interpretive experience of walking the trail has me appreciating the clearcut logging next to the trail.

The concessions in non-wilderness areas are not to say the managers of the trail don’t strive for seclusion.  One of the impressive statistics in the 1982 plan is it’s promotion of “8 National Parks and monuments; 17 Forest Service Wilderness and Primitive areas; and 5 State Parks.”  This is impressive in that now “The PCT passes through five national monuments, five state park units, six national parks, seven BLM field offices, 25 national forest units and 48 federal wilderness areas” according to the PCTA.  That’s three new National Parks and Monuments, cool, but more impressively 31 new wilderness areas.  Well done champions of the trail.  Now over half of the trail on federal land is in wilderness areas where the ability to hear the humming of wind through the pines like Clinton C. Clarke is protected.

Those that are more interested in the design of the trail than the history and management of it can proceed to  Appendix C:  Criteria for Location, Design, Signing and User Facilities.  This is substantially the criteria decided on in 1971 that informed original selected route for the PCT which appeared in 1973.  As such it outlines the design criteria under which much of the trail was constructed.  Most interesting to me is that limiting the grade to below 15% wherever possible is a conscious design decision.  Whether or not this is because of equestrian traffic as often cited is unclear.

The line “No grade should be so steep that erosion is a problem” makes me think an evolution in trail design relating to water flow is the reason the PCT has gentler grades when compared to the AT.   The devil’s advocate could argue that saying “A loop trail, designed especially for hikers, may incorporate short sections of steps or steeper grades if these will not cause undue disturbance, and adequate drainage can be provided to prevent erosion” implies that horses limit how steep the trail should be.  Maybe the trail rumor is right after all, but it isn’t that simple.  (Current best practices for design and maintenance can be found at PCTA’s Trail Skills College.)

Maybe you have a question about why something is the way it is on the PCT.  There’s a good chance it was addressed in the Comprehensive Management Plan.

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