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North Georgia hiking trails to be improved by public/private partnerships

Views from the trails in the Chattahoochee National Forest are one reason its trails are among the most heavily used among all the national forests. Trail maintenance may soon be provided by volunteers and private partners working under agreements with the U.S. Forest Service. Credit: David Pendered (2014)

By David Pendered

During the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the federal law that created the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the federal government has started a program to use volunteers and partners to maintain more than 6,300 miles of trails in national forests in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Appalachian Trail, approach

The Appalachian Trail was envisioned as the first National Scenic Trail, according to a 1968 law passed by Congress. Portions now be maintained by a federally approved public/private partnership announced this month. Credit: pinterest.com

These trails crisscross portions of six states and are among the most heavily used trails in the country.

But maintenance is lacking – just 28 percent of the trail miles meet or exceed agency standards, according to a Feb. 16 statement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor, announced the new maintenance program well in advance of the November deadline established by the Obama-era law that created the program and called for implementation within two years.

“Our nation’s trails are a vital part of the American landscape and rural economies, and these priority areas are a major first step in USDA’s on-the-ground responsibility to make trails better and safer,” Perdue said in a statement.

In all, trails in 15 priorities areas across the country are to be maintained through public/private partnerships created by the enabling legislation.

The effort is coming to pass as the nation observes the 1968 National Trails System Act. The law said it aimed to:

  • “[L]ay the foundation for expanding further the opportunities for the American people to use and enjoy the natural, scenic, historic, and outdoor recreational areas of the Nation. To accomplish this objective, it establishes a national trails system composed of [recreation trails near cities and scenic trails in rural areas, to be linked by connecting side trails].
Chattahoochee National Forest, creek

The verdant Chattahoochee National Forest is home to numerous natural springs that ebb and flow, depending on the amount of rain. Trails may soon be improved by volunteers and private partners of the U.S. Forest Service. Credit: David Pendered (2014)

The trails in the southern Appalachians crisscross portions of six states – Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

The statement observes the improvement efforts in these states will have to be significant:

  • “The work required to bring these trails to standard will require every tool available from partner and volunteer skills to contracts with professional trail builders.”

The announcement does not provide information about how the public/private partnerships are to operate. The notion seems to be that volunteers, possibly members of hiking clubs, and the private outfitters and guides who work in the forests, will come to agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to achieve certain improvements in particular areas.

The enabling legislation is equally vague in describing how the partnerships are to function. Here’s how the bill describes the relationships and outcomes:

  • “Not later than 2 years after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall publish in the Federal Register a strategy to significantly increase the role of volunteers and partners in trail maintenance. …
  • “[P]rovide meaningful opportunities for volunteers and partners to carry out trail maintenance in each region of the Forest Service; …
  • “[P]rioritize increased volunteerism and partnerships in trail maintenance in those regions with the most severe trail maintenance needs, and where trail maintenance backlogs are jeopardizing access to National Forest lands; and

    Views from the trails in the Chattahoochee National Forest are one reason its trails are among the most heavily used among all the national forests. Trail maintenance may soon be provided by volunteers and private partners working under agreements with the U.S. Forest Service. Credit: David Pendered (2014)

  • “[A]im to increase trail maintenance by volunteers and partners by 100 percent by the date that is 5 years after the date of the enactment of this Act.”

The enabling legislation was published in November 2016. It recognized that the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have the resources necessary to maintain trails and address its other responsibilities – including fighting forest fires.

The National Forest Systems Trails Stewardship Act observes:

  • “According to the Government Accountability Office, the Forest Service is only able to maintain about one-quarter of National Forest System trails to the agency standard, and the agency faces a trail maintenance backlog of $314 million, and an additional backlog of $210 million in annual maintenance, capital improvements, and operations.“


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. Dub Joiner February 26, 2018 8:52 am

    Is there a list of trails included in this project (beside the AT)? It would be helpful for reporting purposes to have a state by state list, if one is available, or will the states determine their own list?Report

  2. darenwang February 27, 2018 9:56 am

    I tried to hike De Soto Falls a few weeks back, and it is in wretched condition due to Hurricane Irma. The upper falls trail is closed completely, and the lower falls trail is littered with massive overturned trees. It is only six months since that major disaster, so it’s a bit premature to start shouting about neglect, but one would hope that it both trails would be open soon as the season approaches.Report

  3. Emil Walcek February 27, 2018 12:25 pm

    The devil seems definitely to be in the details on this legislation. Volunteerism for trail maintenance can be spotty, depending on proximity to population. And private partnerships require budgets.Report


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