The Beginning of the National Trails System Act


The story of the creation of a national strategy to create and manage trails in modern America begins with President Lyndon Johnson’s speech on the “Conservation and Preservation of Natural Beauty” in February, 1965. In his address to Congress, the President focused attention on many areas affecting the conservation and restoration of natural beauty in America. His address focused on clean water, parks in urban areas, the establishment of certain national seashore and national recreation areas – and of particular note – trails.

In his speech, President Johnson stated, “The forgotten outdoorsmen of today are those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback, or bicycle. For them we must have trails as well as highways…Old and young alike can participate. Our doctors recommend and encourage such activity for fitness and fun.” He continued, “I am requesting, therefore, that the Secretary of the Interior work with his colleagues in the Federal Government and with State and local leaders and recommend to me a cooperative program to encourage a national system of trails, building up the more than hundred thousand miles of trails in our national forests and parks.”

In response to the President’s request, then Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, formed a committee led by the Bureau of Recreation (then an agency within the Department of the Interior) to study existing trails in the U.S., how well they served the American public, and to recommend federal legislation that would bring into existence a cohesive national trails system. This committee’s work resulted in a report entitled, Trails for America, which was published in December, 1966.



The National Trails System Act of 1968 was the direct result of the Trails for America report.  While differing slightly from the suggestions in the Trails for America report, this legislation did follow the Report’s original intent. It established three different types of trails: National Scenic Trails, National Recreation Trails, and Connecting and Side Trails. Later in 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law a bill that created an additional category of trails: National Historic Trails.

As the Act stands today, as amended, National Scenic Trails are described as extended trails of more than 100 miles in length that provide for outdoor recreation and “for the conservation and enjoyment of the nationally significant scenic, historic, natural, or cultural qualities of the areas through which such trails may pass.” National Scenic Trails may only be land-based, necessarily excluding any water-based travel routes. These trails may only be designated and authorized by an Act of Congress.

National Historic Trails, according to the Act, are also extended trails, although they may be less than 100 miles in length, and follow historic trails or routes of travel as closely as possible. The purpose of these trails is “the identification and protection of the historic route and its historic remnants and artifacts for public use and enjoyment.” National Historic Trails, unlike National Scenic Trails, may include water-based routes. The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail as an example is largely water-based, tracing Captain Smith’s 1607-1609 exploration of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, as he created maps of the area, and documented Native American communities. Just like the National Scenic Trails, National Historic Trails may also only be designated and authorized by an Act of Congress.

National Recreation Trails provide opportunities for outdoor recreation primarily in and around urban areas and have no minimal length requirement. These trails may be designated by either the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture rather than by an Act of Congress. These trails may exist entirely on state, local, and private property as well as on federal lands. 

Importantly, the Act also established the concept of railbanking which gives America the incredible network of rail-trails enjoyed by so many today. 

What an incredible gift was given to us today by an earlier generation. Let us all commit to finishing the work they started and paying it forward to future generations.