Partnership for the National Trails System
The Largest Trail System in the World
America’s National Trails
By Ron Tipton

In 1968, the National Trails System Act created the Appalachian National Scenic Trail as America’s first National Trail. Since then, Congress has established 29 more National Scenic and National Historic Trails that, when completed, will include nearly 60,000 miles of trails in all 50 states. This is by far the largest trail system in the world.

An estimated 200 million people live within an hour’s drive of at least one of these trails. The 11 National Scenic Trails and the 19 National Historic Trails provide excellent outdoor recreation opportunities, promote resource preservation and public access, and encourage the appreciation of the great outdoors and America’s history and cultural diversity.

Of course, the A.T. is the best known and most heavily used of all the National Trails. However, the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide, Ice Age, and the North Country Trail, among others, are all attracting more long-distance and day hikers and have strong non-profit organizations working closely with their federal partners. Examples of National Historic Trails that represent and interpret important historic events include the Lewis & Clark, Santa Fe, Oregon & California, Trail of Tears, Selma to Montgomery, and the Overmountain Victory.

After I retired at the end of 2017 as the president/CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), my interest in and passion for protecting and managing trails led me to the Partnership for the National Trails System (PNTS). PNTS is organized similarly to ATC: it represents and coordinates the non-profit partners for the 30 National Trails as the ATC does with 31 affiliated Trail clubs.

With the PNTS, I now organize and lead a multi-year National Trails campaign. During 2019, I worked with a team of experienced and talented conservation and trail leaders to create a multi-year National Trails Action Plan that includes four goals for protection and effective management of these trails:

Increased federal funding for trail land conservation to protect National Trails priority sites and segments
Sustainable federal funding and support by the federal agency partners for trail operations & management
Increased state & local government support for land and resource protection and trail management
A National Trails communications strategy to promote National Trails as special feature of the American experience
As one of 30 National Trails, the Appalachian Trail will benefit from this action plan. More importantly, the model for success for these trails is the A.T. I interviewed leaders of almost all of the National Scenic Trails and was struck by what I heard about comprehensive plans, segment maps, optimal locations reviews, creating trail communities as partners, and efforts toward increased government support. These are ideas and strategies that have resulted in strong protection and effective sustainable management of the A.T.