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The National Trails System Act was passed in 1968 as a way of getting the United States federal government involved in the creation of trails throughout the country. Prior to this act, the federal government only worried about trails on federal lands, but this act allowed them to help with maintainership and funding of other trails as well. Generally, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Forestry Service are the agencies which are made responsible for the trails. In general, the recognized trails are long distance hiking trails, shorter trails of historic significance, and some special multi-use trails.

However, just because this act gets the national government involved with trails doesn't mean they are interested in doing all the hard work - building them. Most trails are still built by volunteers with the cooperation of some government agency. What helps the most is the establishment of a group of individuals who do all the fundraising, building, and so forth. This group should also keep in constant contact with Congress and various federal agencies. That's the fastest way to get a trail built and recognized.

The NTSA established three different kinds of national trails:

  • national scenic trails: greater than 100 miles in length, continuous, and non-motorized. Established by an Act of Congress.
  • national historic trails: commemorate historic routes of travel. Also established by an Act of Congress.
  • national recreation trails: existing regional trails recognized after application

So you've got a trail and you want it officially recognized as a National Whatever Trail? Excellent! The following four steps are all that need to be completed. Note that according to the National Park Service, this can take up to fifteen years and lots of talking with Congress. Better start now.

  • An amendment to the National Trails System Act calling for a feasibility study.
  • The completed study, usually carried out by the NPS.
  • An Act of Congress adding the trail to the system.
  • A management and use plan, detailing everyone who will be involved with the trail (including the Feds) along the entire length of the trail.

Why so many acts of Congress? Well, adding recognizing another trail means appending the actual text of the NTSA and adding the new trail in there. Congress is the body which modifies legislation like this.

These are the established national scenic trails:

And these are the established national historic trails:

There are hundreds of recognized national recreation trails. They are not listed in the act itself.

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