47,000 Miles and Counting—Land&People

Dale Allen takes a long look around before he sets off down a glorious section of the Florida National Scenic Trail. Ivory trunks of cabbage palms rise like lit candles along the path to a turquoise pool known as Shepherd’s Spring. The palms’ shaggy green fronds scatter the winter sun, and the calls of pileated woodpeckers ring through the woods.

At the tail end of 2008, Allen and I are hiking in celebration of a double anniversary: it’s been 40 years since the National Scenic and Historic Trail system was created and 25 years since the Florida Trail was added to the system in 1983. Beginning in 1968, federal lawmakers recognized the need for national designation of significant scenic and historic pathways—trails that, as the National Park Service states, “promote the enjoyment, appreciation, and preservation of open-air, outdoor areas and historic resources, and encourage public access and citizen involvement.”

Those values were key to conceiving and realizing this trail, which offers hikers a precious and unexpected experience of a Florida few people know.

“We’ve created not only a fabulous recreation opportunity but a trail that literally changes people’s perception of our state,” says Allen, who blazed this section of the trail, between the Suwannee and Apalachicola rivers on the northern Gulf Coast. His orange blazes still mark the trunks of some palms. “Most people visualize beaches when they think of Florida, or theme parks, or assume we are nothing but golf courses and trailers.”

In fact, Florida is a state with dramatic and beautiful natural diversity, with coastal dunes and grasslands, upland and bottomland forests, sawgrass prairies, and swamps cut by dark rivers. Still, a trail through these diverse habitats wasn’t an obvious concept. The prototypes of the national trail movement—the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails—mostly feature high-country ridgelines and breathtaking vistas. “It was hard for people to wrap their minds around the idea of a trail over a flat landscape like Florida’s,” Allen says. “It was thought that without mountains, no one would hike.”

But in the early 1960s, Miami resident Jim Kern returned from backpacking the Appalachian Trail, a wearying 16-hour drive away, determined to create a rewarding trail experience closer to home. Kern founded the Florida Trail Association (FTA), and shortly thereafter, the first blaze marking the Florida Trail was painted on a tree in the Ocala National Forest. Since then Kern’s dream of a long-distance hiking trail in Florida has become a federally designated National Scenic Trail of more than 1,400 miles. Volunteers from all over the state, led by an energetic staff, see to its maintenance, expansion, protection, and promotion.

A Decade For The National Trails

We’re calling the next ten years leading up to our fiftieth anniversary, the ‘Decade for the National Trails,'” says Steve Elkington, National Trails program leader with the National Park Service (NPS). “This is an excellent opportunity to get it right.”

Even if you’ve never dreamed of hoisting a pack and heading out for some foot-powered fun, you’ve probably heard of the Appalachian Trail. One of two trails formally designated to inaugurate the National Trails System (the other was the Pacific Crest Trail), this iconic path stretches more than 2,175 miles through 14 eastern states from Maine to Georgia. The trail was completed in 1937, but by the 1960s, hikers began to notice that development of highways, pipelines, and vacation homes was threatening the wilderness feel of the trail’s corridor. Concerned trail lovers appealed to the federal government, and in 1968, Congress enacted the framework of the National Trails System.

Today, the system comprises 8 scenic and 18 historic trails totaling 47,000 miles and reflecting the immense diversity of our nation’s history and ecosystems. The most recent trail to be authorized—the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, in the Chesapeake Bay region— joined the system in 2008. “The Appalachian Trail alone approaches Civil War battlefields, crosses remote stretches of wilderness and the habitat of globally rare endangered species, and offers views of the New York skyline,” says TPL staffer J. T. Horn, who previously worked for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “There are more threatened and endangered species along the Appalachian Trail than in any other unit in the national park system.”

Trails in the system range from thousands of miles in length—planned around a geographic corridor such as the Appalachians or a historic route such as the Oregon Trail—to shorter journeys such as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. While some hikers make it a life’s goal to traverse an entire national scenic trail, many more visitors tackle short, favorite segments of trail for a few hours or maybe a day. Certain public sites along the historic trails, such as Fort Clatsop at the Pacific Coast terminus of the Lewis and Clark Trail, attract flocks of visitors.

Each trail is administered by one or more of three federal agencies—the National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, or Bureau of Land Management— depending on its location and other factors. Federal funding for trail maintenance is often matched locally by the labor of volunteers. And each trail is supported by a partner stewardship group such as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy or the Florida Trail Association—a cooperating foundation or nonprofit that supports the trail’s protection, maintenance, and programming. Professionalism in these groups has grown as trails have been added, says Gary Werner, executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for the National Trail System (PNTS), which leads the advocacy efforts of the many organizations that support national trails.

“In the early 1990s there were only a few trails that had full-time staff; now five of the National Scenic Trails and half of the Historic Trails employ paid staff. We’ve come a long way.”

A Trail Is Built

We follow in Dale Allen’s footsteps, passing pockets of sun-bleached sawgrass marsh within the trail’s cathedral of palm, cedar, and pine. A self-described “unrepentant schoolteacher,” Allen interprets the landscape as he walks, pointing out distinctive plant life with a six-foot length of weathered bamboo (“Shelf fungi! Overcup oak acorns! Beautyberry!”). Narrow boardwalks constructed by Florida Trail volunteers elevate our path where we might otherwise have waded.

Only unmarked forests—an impenetrable line of brush—faced Allen when, as a volunteer more than 25 years ago, he first began to design and flag a route for this section of the Florida National Scenic Trail. He had moved to Tallahassee to work as a field representative for The Trust for Public Land, where he eventually served as Southeast regional director for 23 years. “I would scout for TPL during the week, and for the trail Saturdays and Sundays,” says Allen.

“At first I would come out here in the driest weather and think I could just flag a path from one beautiful vista or big old tree to the next,” he continues. “But after a hard rain, I often found my proposed route underwater. I learned to follow deer and other game trails: the animals know the easiest paths through these woods. It probably took me six different trips to lay out each section of the trail, searching for the best possible path. Then I’d bring a volunteer crew out here and we’d carve the trail corridor with bush axes, swing blades, and machetes.”

For four years, Allen served as the FTA’s volunteer section leader for this 30-mile trail segment. “It would take us 10 weeks to give this whole stretch of trail its annual maintenance,” he remembers. “We could cover about three miles in an eight-hour day, including pulling a heavy-duty lawnmower along the trail. I think maybe I drove some of my volunteers away, working them so hard!” While their efforts seemed isolated at first, Allen and his team knew that other FTA volunteers were laboring on their own sections of the trail.

“Over the years, the Trail Association’s contributions of sweat equity have been remarkable, and provided the necessary match for federal funding,” says Kent Wimmer, the FTA’s Florida National Scenic Trail liaison with the U.S. Forest Service. “This past year alone, volunteers contributed almost 70,000 hours along the trail, worth $1.3 million.”

Finding history underfoot

The Florida Trail was one of several scenic trails to dispel the myth that mountains are the only desirable destination for long-distance hikers. But in its own way every new trail “stretches the box” of what a trail might be, says NPS’s Elkington. For example, “historic trails aren’t built in the way that scenic trails are,” he explains. “They are found.”

Historic trails joined the system in 1978, with the addition of the Oregon National Historic Trail and three other routes. Today, such trails are often experienced in pieces, often where the trail crosses public land. For example, while the Nez Perce (Ne-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail is officially 1,170 miles long, only about a fifth of it has been marked and designated. The trail commemorates the enforced eviction of 750 Nez Perce men, women, and children from their Oregon homeland and their brave flight across the Northern Rockies to a battle with the U.S. Army near Chinook, Montana, in 1877.

“This trail is an important part of our nation’s history,” says Jim Evans, executive director of the Nez Perce Trail Foundation. “You’ve got to get out on the ground, walking or riding, to really feel the desperate circumstances of this peaceful tribe as they were pursued by the U.S. Army. For the Nez Perce, the trail is one big graveyard, start to finish. And we have uncovered stories from the army that will tear your heart apart—for example, a set of letters written home by a twenty-one-year-old Pennsylvania bugler. ‘Why are we chasing these people?’ he wrote, just before he was killed in a skirmish near present-day Yellowstone National Park.”

For the past 27 years, even before the trail was officially established in 1986, Evans has helped organize a commemorative trail ride along the route, each time over a different portion. All participants travel on horseback, just as the Nez Perce and their pursuers did, and reenactments take place along the way. On the 2008 trail ride, descendants of the cavalry soldiers raised an 1877 American flag and saluted the Nez Perce descendants who were on hand. “It was a very passionate and emotional experience,” Evans says. “We can’t right the wrongs that were perpetrated, but we do what we can.”

Trail Challenges

Trail advocates agree that the biggest single challenge facing the National Trail System is the intense pressure of land development—not only roads, subdivisions, and cities but (especially in the West) natural resource development, including natural gas fields, and even wind farms and solar arrays.

“As a nation, we are putting the footprints of our development down everywhere, with challenging implications for the trails,” says PNTS Director Gary Werner.

“Aside from the three oldest trails—the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails—only 55 or 60 percent of the total mileage of the scenic trails is protected. It’s a real problem with a very short timeline.”

Here’s an example of the urgent task at hand. When complete, the North Country National Scenic Trail will lead hikers from the New York-Vermont border all the way to North Dakota—a distance of 4,400 miles. But only half of that route is on the ground to date. The remaining 2,200 miles lie unprotected, on private lands.

“What remains to be acquired of just this one trail is basically the length of the whole Appalachian Trail,” says NPS’s Elkington.

In addition to public ownership, methods of protecting the routes of scenic trails include landowner agreements and easements that permit access.

Nonprofits such as The Trust for Public Land play a key role by working with federal agencies and trail stewardship groups to help protect the most important trail segments and viewsheds, through both public acquisition and access easements with private landowners.

In the last 30 years, TPL has helped protect land along ten national scenic and historic trails. Another ongoing challenge for the system is that while each trail is administered by a federal agency, each also crosses numerous jurisdictions on the ground, with segments managed by a variety of landowners or agencies.

“Florida is a good example of the complexity of establishing a trail that must pass through a maze of more than 50 agency jurisdictions,” Werner says. “One of our biggest challenges is how to coordinate so many agencies, none of whose main mission is to administer a national scenic or historic trail. Sometimes it can be hard to get the agencies, or private landowners, to appreciate that they have a nationally significant resource on their land.”

Consider a military installation whose primary role is national defense. Security is the top issue. So how did the Florida Trail Association get permission to route a trail through the enormous holdings of Eglin Air Force base in northwest Florida?

“It took more than ten years of patient negotiations until the base folks felt comfortable allowing the trail to pass through an easement on their property,” Werner says. “But the Florida Trail Association, through its persistence, showed long-term commitment to the trail, and helped the Department of Defense feel proud of the natural and scenic resources on their property.”

“It takes a while to get all these players to trust and line up,” he adds. “You might say that the most fundamental thing about the National Trail System is that it’s unbelievably complicated.” Only the Florida Trail and Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail traverse land within a single state. Imagine the intricacies of managing a multistate trail such as the Appalachian Trail, which passes through 14 states.

Volunteers: Lifeblood Of The Trails

“Trail volunteers have a practical bent,” observes Dale Allen as he rests from our hike by Shepherd’s Spring. “I know I need a tangible reason for wandering around a beautiful forest. With trail work, you’ve got something to show at the end of the day.”

In 2007, volunteers like Allen contributed 720,000 hours of work worth $22 million to the National Trail System, says Gary Werner. “Many of our trail volunteers are lifetime hikers, and they want to leave a legacy, give something back.”

But trail managers know they need to find ways to draw in a younger and more diverse demographic as well. “We are trying to create new kinds of volunteer opportunities by offering folks chances to work for just a month, a week, or even a weekend,” says the Forest Service’s Wimmer. “An example is the Florida Trail Association’s F-Troop, a volunteer trail crew program that invites participants to construct boardwalks or repair bridges on a short-term basis, if they don’t have the time or inclination to make trail work a regular part of their lives.”

How will the national trails, with their heavy reliance on a volunteer cadre, thrive and remain relevant in the years to come? One way is to create trail experiences with new themes that focus on identity groups; for example, on the Underground Railroad, the civil rights movement, or Hispanic exploration and immigration routes.

Another is to invite new constituencies to the planning table. Trail groups are forging imaginative partnerships with health organizations such as the Epilepsy Foundation, as well as with the Urban League, Elderhostel, and numerous city parks departments. In addition, concern about the nation’s physically inactive and nature-deprived children is fueling exciting new programs like Trail to Every Classroom, which engages Appalachian youth in both trail use and service learning close to their communities.

“Our trails offer a route to something bigger; they are so much more than simply a path through the woods,” says PNTS’s Werner. “They tie people to the landscape they are tending and the stories that the land holds.”

Tallahassee-based nature writer and activist Susan Cerulean is the author or editor of six books on Florida’s wild places and wildlife—including, most recently, Tracking Desire: A Journey after Swallow-tailed Kites. More information about her books and speaking engagements can be found on her website: www.susancerulean.com.