Section 508 Navigation
National Trails Training partnership Skip Navigation
HomeAbout usTrailsWhat's hotCalendarTrainingResources & libraryPartnersJoin usStore

Planning trails and greenwaysHosted by

Utilizing Irrigation Canals in Northern Utah for Recreational Trail Use: An Evaluation of Issues and Concerns

Table of contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | References | Questionnaire | Interview A | Interview B | Interview C | Interview D | Interview E | Interview



“Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see how the pine lives and grows and spires, Lifting its evergreen arms to the light ­ to see its perfect success…” 

Henry David Thoreau


Although the positive perception of the benefits provided by the creation of canal trails is not shared by everyone, there is plenty of evidence in the form of case studies and reports to substantiate the claims of the positive impacts of trails in general.  While these studies each focus on a particular type of trail or on a specific location that has its own unique qualities, a cumulative overview of the information they contain can offer comprehensive insight into the general benefits recreation corridors can provide.  It is useful for individuals involved in a canal trail planning effort to take a closer look at these studies in order to begin an analysis of the potential impacts of such an effort on their specific city or community.  Whether it is a canal trail or a rail-trail, there are impacts which can be considered universal to all trail projects that bisect communities.  The findings of some of the major studies that examine these impacts are included in this section.




Economic Benefits

While it is important to understand the intrinsic environmental, recreational and social values of preserving these canal corridors, it is the economic impacts, or the amount of spending that results from the use and existence of these trails that often creates the most powerful argument with decision makers.  Across the country, the development of canal trails has proven to be a wise economic investment for the communities they pass through  (Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and National Park Service,, 1995).  As shown in numerous studies and reports recreation corridors in general enhance the economic vitality of the local communities they bisect. 

            The National Park Service has published a resource book entitled Economic Impacts of Protecting Rivers, Trails, and Greenway Corridors (1995), which is a compilation of the most recent information on this subject.  Each section of the study focuses on a different set of economic rationales.  According to this document the economic benefits of greenways can be broken into the following categories:

Real Property Values: Many studies provide evidence that trails may increase nearby property values, which in turn, increases local tax revenues.  Additional revenues generated in this way can be used to help offset trail acquisition and maintenance costs.

Expenditures by Residents: Spending by local residents on greenway related activities aids in the support of recreation-oriented businesses and employment, as well as other businesses that are patronized by trail users.

Commercial Uses: Often, trails provide the potential for concessions and special events within the trail, which can boost local business as well as raise funds for the greenway itself.

Tourism: A well-designed and developed trail system can attract visitors to a community, which supports local businesses that provide lodging, food, and recreation-oriented services.  The trails also improve the overall appeal of a community to visitors.

Agency Expenditures: The agency responsible for managing the trail can aid in the support of local businesses through the purchase of supplies and services.  Local employment opportunities are increased by the jobs created by the managing agency.

Corporate Relocation and Retention: There is evidence in the form of studies, surveys and reports that the quality of life a community has to offer is an increasingly important factor in retaining and attracting corporations and businesses, and that trails can be an important contributor to the quality of life.

Public Cost Reduction: The conservation of rivers, trails and greenways may help local governments and other public agencies reduce the otherwise intensive development costs such as roads and sewers; reduce costs resulting from natural hazards such as flooding; and avoid costly damages to natural resources.

The economic benefits of greenways and trails can be examined in a more simplified manner by looking at two general categories: (1) Property Values and (2) Tourist-Visitor Expenditures/Business Revitalization.

(1)   Property Values:  The impact of a recreation corridor on adjacent and nearby

property values has been the primary subject of a multitude of studies and surveys throughout the United States.  These studies have revealed that trails have no adverse effects on adjacent property values, and in most instances result in enhanced value and increased salability.

·                    According to a study of property values near greenbelts in Boulder, Colorado, housing prices decline an average of $4.20 for each foot of distance from a greenbelt up to 3,200 feet.  This average was $10.20 for each foot of distance in one specific neighborhood.  It was determined that, other variables being equal, the average value of property adjacent to the greenbelt would be 32 percent higher than those 3,200 feet away  (Correll, Lillydahl, and Singell, 1978). 

·                    In 1992 The National Park Service and Penn State University released a report entitled Impacts of Rail Trails.  According to this study of landowners and users along three rail-trails, (the rural Heritage Trail in Iowa, the St. Marks Trail in Florida which runs through small communities and forested areas and the suburban Lafayette/ Moraga Trail in California)  both landowners near or adjacent to the study trails and real estate agents felt that the trails had no adverse affect on the desirability or values of the properties.  Those who felt the trails increased property values outnumbered those who reported decreased values.  A majority of the post-trail development homebuyers reported that the trail either had no effect or added to the properties appeal and along the Lafayette/Moraga Trail a majority of owners felt the trail would increase the value of their home  (National Park Service and Pennsylvania State University, 1992).

·                    According to a survey of residents along the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail in New York State, 85.8 percent of landowners feel that the trail has had no effect or has increased their ability to sell their homes.  Similarly, most of the landowners surveyed feel the trail has no effect on or actually increased the value of their property (Schenectady County Department of Planning, 1997).

·                    Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Trail has not only been used as a selling point for nearby properties, but it has also been proven to increase the value of those properties.  The results of surveys of homeowners and real estate agents conducted by the Seattle Engineering Department shows property near but not immediately adjacent to the trail is significantly easier to sell.  According to real estate agents, these properties sell for an average of 6 percent more because of its proximity to the trail.  However, property immediately adjacent to the trail is slightly easier to sell and the trail has no significant effect on the selling price. Sixty percent of the homeowners believed that being adjacent to the trail would either make their home sell for more or have no effect on the selling price  (Seattle Office of Planning, 1987).

·                    The results of a survey of adjacent landowners along the Luce Line rail-trail in Minnesota show that the majority of owners (87 percent) believed the trail increased or had no effect on the value of their property.  Two thirds, or 61 percent stated an increase in their property values as a result of the trail.  New owners felt the trails have a greater positive effect on adjacent property values than do continuing owners.  Appraisers and real estate agents stated that trails were a positive selling point for suburban residential property, hobby farms, farmland proposed for development, and some types of small town commercial property  (Mazour, 1988).

·                    According to the results of a study of the effects of  three urban trails in and around the metro-Denver area on public safety and property values, 57 percent of the residents of homes adjacent to the trail felt that the trail would make their home easier to sell.  The trails ranged from a paved greenway trail through a low income neighborhood to a crusher fines (unpaved) canal trail in an upscale suburb. None of the residents of townhomes, apartments, and condominiums adjacent to the trail felt the trail would decrease the selling price of their home, and 42 percent thought that it would increase the price of their home;  73 percent of the real estate agents believed that a home adjacent to a trail would be easier to sell, and 55 percent agreed the home would sell for more than a comparable home from a different neighborhood  (The Conservation Fund and Colorado State Parks State Trails Program, March 1995).

·                    According to a study of the effect of the Brush Creek Trail in Santa Rosa’s Rincon Valley on property values and crime, 49.3 percent (out of 75 respondents) of the adjacent residents thought the trail would have no effect on selling the home and 29.3 percent thought the trail would make the home slightly easier to sell.  69.3 percent thought the trail would have no effect on the selling price of the home and 20 percent thought it would make the home sell for slightly more.  Sixty-one percent of the real estate agents surveyed (out of 31 surveyed) stated that they would use the trail and creek as selling points  (Murphy, 1992).

·                    An increased stability of listing is considered to be the greatest value brought to trailside properties by the Northern Central Rail-Trail in Baltimore County, Maryland.  According to this study (Analysis of Economic Impacts of the Northern Central Rail-Trail) conducted for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in 1994, “if two identical properties are for sale and one is near the trail and the other is not, the trail is used as a selling point and helps many nearby owners sell their property faster.” The study also found that 63 percent of survey respondents, comprised of trail users, nearby landowners and local businesses, felt the trail enhances nearby property values  (PKF Consulting, 1994).

·                    According to James Amon, Executive Director of the Deleware & Raritan Canal Commission: “Realtors show the canal park to potential homebuyers and have reported that proximity to the trail raises the value of these homes.  Industrial recruiters tell us that they always show the canal park to prospective employees.  Senior citizens have said that it is the number one reason they stay in the region” (Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and National Park Service, 1995).


            (2) Tourist-Visitor Expenditures and Business Revitalization: Studies have shown that trails stimulate local economies.  By attracting bicyclists, hikers, cross-country skiers and other tourists, trails in turn, attract and revitalize businesses, create jobs, and increase public revenues.  The income generated by these recreational activities can be of substantial importance to the existing local economy as well as a significant source of new local economic development.

·                    According to the previously mentioned study, The Impacts of Rail-Trails, use of the trails surveyed generated a significant amount of economic activity from two major sources: trip-related expenditures and additional expenditures on durable goods.

Trip related expenditures by trail users (food, lodging, gas, etc.) ranged from $1.2 to $1.8 million per year.  Durable goods (bicycles, clothing, supplies, etc.) purchased by trail users ranged from $130 to $250 per trail user per year.  New money brought into the communities by visitors using the trails ranged from $249,000 to $630,000 per year respectively.  Local economies of communities through which the trails pass averaged an increase of well over a half a million dollars in annual direct expenditures made by trail users during their visits as well as significant additional expenditures made on durable goods related to trail use  (National Park Service and Pennsylvania State University, 1992).

·                    Analysis of Economic Impacts of the Northern Central Rail Trail found that while the 1993 budget to provide the trail to the public was $191,893, the direct economic inputs to the state of Maryland via tax revenue alone were $303,750.  The demand for the trail is illustrated by an increase in use of 10,000 visitors per annum in 1984 to over 450,000 in 1993.  In 1993, trail users spent an average of $203 on goods for use on the trail. This increase in use has had an enormous economic impact on nearby businesses, leading to the creation and support of 264 jobs statewide.  The value of goods purchased because of the trail for 1993 was valued at over $3.38 million  (PKF Consulting, 1994).

·                    Within weeks of the Katy Trail dedication in Missouri, new and old businesses were vying for tourist dollars. These communities which were in economic decline since the demise of the nearby railroad and were initially opposed to the trail, changed their sentiments when the flocks of visitors proved to be responsible, likable guests who needed goods and services available in the small towns.  A 1993 user survey showed that it generated an estimated $3 million in local revenue   (NBPC Technical Brief, September, 1995).

·                    When a towpath trail (canal trail) opened in Peninsula, Ohio, the influx of trail users led to the conversion of a former bar and gift shop into a successful bicycle rental and repair shop. The towns Winking Lizard Tavern has also benefited from the trail with an increase of 200 customers a week in the first year since the trail’s opening  (Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and National Park Service, 1995).

·                    Michigan’s Hart-Montague Bicycle Trail follows along the eastern coast of Lake Michigan.  After six months of bicycle use along the trail, business has increased for several owners by 25 to 30 percent.  Trail passes brought in revenues of approximately $40,000, up 33 percent from 1991  (Aardema, 1992).

·                    Peak season hotel rooms along Wisconsin’s Elroy-Sparta State Park Trail are booked up to a full year in advance.  A state study of the trail revealed that the destination is so desirable that an average visitor will travel 228 miles to experience it.  Half of all the trail users are out-of-state visitors who bring “new” money into the state.  The total average expenditure per party is $105.35.  In 1988, users of the trail averaged expenditures of $25.14 per day for trip-related expenses. Total trail user expenditures in 1988 were over $1.2 million  (Schwecke, Sprehn, Hamilton, and Gray., 1989).

·                    A ten-foot wide perpetual easement to U.S. Telecom, issued by the trail managing entity of Wisconsin’s Glacial Drumlin Trail, helped pay to pave the 48 mile trail.  U.S. Telecom paid out $375,000 for the paving of the trail in exchange for use of the corridor  (Ryan, Fink, Lagerwey,  Balmori, and. Searns, 1993).

·                    The Campbell Inn in Campbell, California was required to provide an easement for the Los Gatos Trail as a condition for development.  Realizing the marketing potential of the trail, developers constructed part of the trail and provide rental bicycles for hotel guests.  The Inn promotes the trail in their brochure: “For fitness and fun, The Campbell Inn offers a jogging/ biking trail connecting to a full series par course which…runs along a scenic trail, passing through forests and alongside a stream and two beautiful lakes”  (National Park Service, 1995).

·                    Once known as an industrial city, Pueblo, Colorado made a decision early on to improve its appearance and amenities in order to attract new business.  The investment made in trails and parks along the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek is now credited by city fathers as one of the most important components in turning around economic decline  (Denver Post, January 27 1990).

·                    In his book, Greenways For America, Charles E. Little, speaks of the “edge effect”.  He compared the total edge in feet of a traditional park and a linear park of equal area (100 square acres) and found the greenway has 5.65 times as much apparent open space or edge (41,800 linear feet) as the traditional round park.  In economic terms this meant that for every dollar of taxes spent on the traditional park, you get the same edge effect (assuming an equal price per acre) with an expenditure of eighteen cents for a greenway  (Little, 1995).


Since each trail is unique, all of the examples mentioned above can only point to the possibility that economic benefits will result from the creation of any particular trail.  However, knowledge of what factors make significant economic impacts can only help in the planning and management of these recreational trails, and whether it is a river trail, rail-trail or canal trail most of the factors that create the impacts mentioned above are pandemic to each type of trail.  Also, economic impact is only one benefit associated with the development of recreational trails.  What may be considered even more important than the economic impact is the recreational opportunities, the preservation of open space and the heightened quality of life these resources provide  (Moore, Gitelson, and Graefe, 1994).


Social Benefits

The major social impacts of canal trails include recreation, health and fitness and transportation benefits.  One of the true potential benefits of a canal trail is that it would allow the community to recreate and exercise in scenic, natural settings that are not available by using streets and sidewalks.  Studies have shown that health, fitness, and recreation are considered to be important benefits derived from the use of trails: 

·        A study of three different trails summarizes the overall value of recreational trails well.  When asked why they had visited the trails and their perceptions of the highest benefits the trails have to offer, trail users and adjacent landowners alike emphasized benefits related to: health and fitness, safe/automobile-free recreation, peace and quiet, social interaction, recreation opportunities, preservation of open space, community pride, improved neighborhood quality and nature/wildlife appreciation (National Park Service and Pennsylvania State University, 1992.)

Trails encourage the use of non-polluting transportation alternatives for short trips to work, school, or the local store.  During and after development these trails become an expression of community pride and character and in many cases a means for preserving the natural and historical resources of a region.  In cities and suburbs, where close to home recreation opportunities are becoming scarce, and open space is becoming fragmented, these trails are becoming more and more essential   (NBPC Technical Brief, September, 1995).

Canal trails can serve as safe non-motorized transportation routes that could improve air quality and one’s health alike.  It has become a well-known fact that the consistent practice of moderate physical activity is essential to improving our health and quality of life.  Canal trails, with their flat gradients and proximity to communities, are ideal for starting and maintaining a daily routine of physical activity, with the added benefit of reducing vehicle trips if combined with regular commutes or errands  (Doherty, 1998).

The most common forms of non-motorized transportation are bicycling and walking, which means that facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians will play a major role in the success of local transportation systems.  According to the National Bicycling and Walking Study final report (half the trips we make are within 3 miles of home)These trips are well suited to travel by walking or bicycling.  Canal trails would offer communities a means of safe and convenient transportation and keep the essential links within a community open to all.  They could help connect neighborhoods to workplaces, schools, commercial and cultural centers, historic sites and transit stations  (NBPC Technical Brief, September, 1995).

As previously mentioned in chapter one, one of the most important benefits of developing canal trails in urban areas is the significant potential for accessibility and linkage they provide to the communities they bisect.  In northern Utah, developed canal trails could link residents within communities along the Wasatch Front to each other as well as to the nearby mountains.  In a phone interview with the executive director of Weber County Pathways, Di Allison, she expressed an interest in forming interconnected trail systems all along the Wasatch Front.  The chairman of the North Ogden Trails Group, Dr. Garth Willey expressed a similar interest: “Our dream is to have the highline canal be part of the trail system going from Brigham City and from Box Elder county down to the mouth of Ogden Canyon and tie up with the trail going up Ogden Canyon.”

 However, in many cities throughout Utah, the intention is not only to provide improved access and linkages to recreational opportunities and the nearby mountains for an increased number of people along the proposed trails, but to also create a catalyst for improving the cities sense of community and health.  Particularly in urban areas, canals bring water, light, fresh air and trees, which goes a long way in helping to humanize our cities  (College of Architecture and Planning, University of Colorado, Denver, 1994).  So, the creation of these trails is not about a collection of “environmentalists” infringing on property rights, but about a cadre of civic leaders, however disparate, who believe in the emblematic, as well as actual importance of linkage.  The linkage of recreational and cultural resources, of wildlife populations, and of bringing neighborhoods, towns, cities and people of all colors and stations together, not only in the use of greenways, but also in the making of them  (Little, 1995).

            A developed canal trail contains elements of local character and regional influence, and reflects the hard work, enthusiasm, and commitment of individuals, organizations, elected officials and agencies.  Everyone is able to take pride in having worked together to successfully complete the trail.  As illustrated by the many public events that occur on the Northern Central Rail-Trail in Maryland, there is a sense of community pride associated with trails such as these.  Local charities including St. Jude’s Children Hospital, the Maryland Air National Guard, and the National Kidney Foundation raise money and support by using the trail for walk-a-thons, bike-a-thons, and other activities.  These linear parks offer inner city children and adults alike a chance to conveniently experience the outdoors and inexpensive access to parks and even national forests that may otherwise be inaccessible.  They offer people a chance to get out of their homes and cars and come into contact with each other on a regular basis.  They contribute to personal interaction, neighborhood socialization, and community unity (NBPC Technical Brief, September, 1995).   As Charles Little very simply states in his book Greenways for America: “To make a greenway…is to make a community”  (Little, 1995).


Flora and Fauna Benefits

            Even though a heavily used canal corridor may not always provide high quality habitat due to varying disturbances caused by recreational use, they none-the-less, contain elements that make them valuable among increasingly fragmented habitats. Two major ecological functions that canal corridors can fulfill for wildlife are providing varying levels of habitat and acting as conduits or connections.  Although periodic maintenance, intermittent water supply and frequent human disturbance keep canals from developing certain natural characteristics and fulfilling complex ecological functions, they can exhibit much of the vegetation and wildlife diversity of natural riparian corridors.  Although many canals lack the aquatic and microbial processes found in natural watercourses, due to the intermittent water supply, many provide valuable riparian habitat.  This is particularly true of those that are unlined and where the long-term seasonal presence of water creates vegetation conditions similar to those of natural riparian corridors.  Numerous species of native and non-native trees, shrubs and grasses contribute to the habitat available to wildlife along canals.  Whether endangered, threatened, rare or abundant, flora and fauna use these corridors as havens from the fragmented urban landscape  (College of Architecture and Planning, University of Colorado, Denver, 1994).

In response to continued habitat loss and isolation, many landscape ecologists stress the urgent need for providing landscape connectivity, especially in the forms of wildlife movement corridors  (Dramstad, Olson, and. Forman, 1996).  According to the still new profession of landscape ecology, corridors must be seen in the context of a larger landscape.  Every land use or form is part of a patch, corridor, or a background matrix.  Species, energy, and materials move not only through these corridors, and the matrix, but also from patch to patch.  Properly designed, these corridors can help wildlife overcome the effects of fragmentation of habitat due to human development by increasing the effective size of protected areas, creating access and linkage to different habitats, and connecting wildlife populations  (Labaree, 1992).  Therefore, they offer a powerful strategy for helping to maintain ecological integrity in human-dominated landscapes, especially with regard to preserving biological diversity  (Smith and Hellmund, 1993).     

            In terms of the impacts of recreation on the environment, the use of canal corridors makes sense.  Studies have found the relationship between the amount of use and the resulting amount of impact to be “asymptotic” (differences in the amount of use influence the amount of impact most when levels of use are relatively low).  These studies support the strategy of minimizing impact by concentrating use as much as possible.  Increasing use levels in places that are already heavily used will probably have few negative effects  (Smith and Hellmund, p.111, 1993).  The implications of these studies support increased use of greenways such as the canal corridor, which are being used informally and sometimes intensely by their adjacent neighborhoods. 

If thoughtful design strategies for managing impacts on the natural environment are incorporated into a developed canal trail, the quality of the recreational experience will not be diminished by an overly damaged environment within the corridor.  Sensitive design can create a canal trail that serves as an environmental education facility.  Through interpretation, residents can develop a greater awareness and appreciation for the natural resources in their area.  It has been shown that trail users become significant advocates of the natural resources in their immediate surroundings  (Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and National Park Service, 1995).


Cultural Preservation

Cultural preservation is another positive impact of developing irrigation canals.  Irrigation canals are a living history of Utah.  They represent a story of how early pioneers manipulated their environment to survive in a semi-arid climate, on once barren land.  They tell a story of the bringing together of neighbors in order to manage and maintain the running of the ditches and the formation of friendships.  Many cities throughout Utah are struggling to maintain or in most cases reclaim their sense of place and community, looking for something that makes them unique and distinguishable from every other city.  Canals can provide a piece of the missing puzzle.  They flow through the center of cities passing neighborhoods of all socio-economic levels, commercial and industrial districts, and through open space into agricultural lands.  As a connective thread through the cultural fabric of the region, these canals offer an opportunity not only for understanding the past, but for developing new history  (College of Architecture and Planning, University of Colorado, Denver, 1994).

            Henderson (1987) suggests that one of  the basic critical concerns of the canal company are that they are the holders of historic property interests which are essential to the continuation of their business.  As development spreads out over agricultural farmland, their historic value and existing uses are both threatened.  In some cases abandoned canals are ignored and eventually take on the status of an alleyway.  For these reasons, preservation efforts will become increasingly necessary in the future.  In order to preserve them it is important to increase awareness of the canals by educating citizens about their place in history, their cultural value, how they contributed to the development of their city, their uses today, and their vision for the future.  If developed as trails, cities or agencies could place placards along the trail with a written history of the canal system, irrigation techniques and uses  (College of Architecture and Planning, University of Colorado, Denver, 1994).  This may not only increase awareness of the canals historic value but it would also give the canal an important role in the community.


Pilot Projects as Models

A well designed pilot project, no matter how large or small can be effective in demonstrating the benefits of a canal trail.  As Robert Searns points out in his paper The evolution of greenways as an adaptive urban landscape form: “Well-executed greenways are infectious, and nothing promotes the spread of a greenway, even across jurisdictional lines, like an outstanding pilot effort.  The people next door see it, they like it, and want to continue it into their community” (Searns and Baur, 1993).  Once this domino effect of successful efforts start, canal company officials and neighborhoods throughout the state will begin to see the multiple benefits that come from a cooperative agreement in which the critical needs of both the canal companies and the community are carefully taken into consideration. 

There are some excellent and well-established examples of successful large scale canal trail projects throughout the United States which have demonstrated the economic, aesthetic and quality of life improvements in the communities they transect.  These examples can also serve as models for Utah.  One such project is the seventy one mile long and twenty plus year old High Line Canal in Denver Colorado. This canal has demonstrated that multi-jurisdictional ownerships can cooperate to create a valuable community resource.  


Underlying Values

Irrigation canal rights-of-ways have values that are not always easily seen.  As Robert Pyle notes in his book The Thunder Tree, the “potentials and values of irrigation canals go a lot deeper than what is superficially seen” (Pyle, 1993). 

                In 1910, Fredrick Law Olmsted, Jr., professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University and one of the founders of the profession of city planning, was invited to Boulder, Colorado, to prepare a pamphlet of suggestions for the cities ‘improvement’. In the pamphlet Olmsted proposed a park and trail along Farmer’s Ditch below Red Rocks Park. “Here and anywhere a considerable degree of charm is felt the very moment anyone takes care of the borders of such an irrigating stream in an appreciative spirit” (Qtd. By: University of Colorado at Denver).  It is the physical and ecological characteristics of flowing water, flora and fauna, the availability of an existing, graded maintenance road and their close proximity to neighborhoods which make these corridors/linear open spaces so unique as potential recreation corridors.

While he was speaking of natural corridors, Stanley White, a great teacher of landscape architecture, may as well have been speaking of irrigation canals when he stated that “the form is there, we just have to respect it and fit our human activities around those forms” (Qtd. By Fabos and Ahern, 1995 p. 8).




Three and a half decades have gone by since 1964 when the Council of State Governments passed model state legislation in order “to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes”.   Model language was used by the Council in hopes that all states would eventually adopt this legislation.  Over the years, each state has done so and in the process state courts have worded, revised, interpreted and applied the legislation in the shape of their own unique interests.   As time goes by this statute will become more and more refined  (Lee, 1995).



When canal companies and adjacent landowners grant an easement or lease to a public entity for recreational purposes, they open themselves to tort liability when entrants are injured.  To promote public recreational use of private land, statutes limiting the liability of landowners have been passed by states.  For private trail groups that own and manage trails and for private landowners opening their land to trail use, Recreational Use Statutes (RUS) offer protection from personal injury suits when allowing their property to be used by the public for recreational purposes.  These state laws are on the books in all fifty states including Utah.  Some state courts have interpreted these laws to include limitation on liability for a broad variety of public land managers, including municipalities, states and the federal government. The breadth of coverage provided by these statutes varies from state to state  (NBPC, 1996; Douglas, 1997).

The legislative purpose as stated in Utah’s RUS explains that, “The purpose of this act is to encourage public and private owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting their liability toward persons entering thereon for those purposes.”  While courts have been interpreting and upholding the RUS in favor of the landowner who opens land for recreational use, it should be made clear that Utah’s RUS does not grant “immunity” from liability.  Rather, the statute offers “limits” on a landowners liability toward persons using their land for recreational use. 

There is a limit on the duty of care owed by the landowner to recreational users.  Generally, property law divides entrants into three groups: trespassers, licensees and invitees.  An invitee is owed the highest and a trespasser the lowest duty of care.  Under the RUS the only duty of care owed the recreational user is that owed a trespasser.  The landowner “owes no duty of care to keep the premise safe” and “warning of a dangerous condition” is not required “except as specifically provided in Subsections (1) and (2) of Section 57-14-6”. (Section 57-14-3)  Section 57-14-6 provides, “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity” can be grounds for suit.  Therefore, since most canals have dangerous conditions and structures, canal companies would most likely be required to post warning signs in regards to these structures in order to receive protection from the RUS.

The landowner is not liable for injuries resulting from mere carelessness of the injured party.  To recover damages the injured party would have to prove that the landowner engaged in willful or malicious misconduct  (Lee,1995; Douglass, 1997).

In a precedent setting case, a plaintiff failed to bring a case for willful or malicious conduct against an irrigation company in a wrongful death action arising out of death of swimmer who was swept under water while swimming in an irrigation ditch.  The allegation that the irrigation company failed to take reasonable action to protect the public in the face of knowledge of an unreasonable dangerous condition failed to bring a case for willful or malicious conduct (Golding vs. Ashley Cent. Irrigation Co., 793 P2d 897, Utah 1990).  According to this case, canal companies are not required to post warnings in regards to the swift moving waters of their canals. 

As defined by this statute an “owner” includes the possessor of any interest in the land, whether public or private land, a tenant, a lessee, and an occupant or person in control of the premises.”  Therefore, since canal companies hold an “interest” in the land, they are offered protections under this statute when they open their canals to the public for recreational purposes.

            When landowners allow recreational use of their land they are protected whereas, if they post no trespassing signs in addition to allowing recreational use, they are not.  For example, in order to gain protection under the RUS, landowners must show that they have given permission for their land to be used for recreational purposes.  Some states presume that unless otherwise indicated permission has been granted.  Utah’s Supreme Court, in contrast, has required some showing that the land was open for recreational purposes  (Golding v. Ashley Cent. Irr. Co., 1990). 

Because the RUS’s intent is to make land available to the public, charging a fee for use of the land would negate its protection.  If a landowner attempts to charge individuals entering their land, they will loose the protection of the RUS, regardless of whether or not they have granted an easement.  (Section 57-14-4, 57-14-6) 

Precedent setting cases for Utah’s Recreational Use Statute include:  Golding vs. Ashley Cent. Irrigation Co., 793 P.2d 897 (Utah 1990);   Jerz vs. Salt Lake County, 882 P.2d 770 (Utah 1991);  Crawford vs. Tilley, 780 P.2d 1248 (Utah 1989);  Lossli vs. Kennecott Copper Corp., 849 P.2d 624 (Utah Ct. App. 1993);  and Zollman vs. Myers, 797 F. Supp. 923 (D. Utah 1992)  (See Appendix C, for Utah’s Recreational Use Statute)



A challenge in regards to the RUS is that even though it does offer canal companies and adjacent landowners a significant measure of protection they should be made aware that due to some ambiguities in its language, its susceptibility to the whims of juries and its varied applications from state to state, protection is not a sure thing and should never be assumed.  (Lee, 1995)  According to Robert D. Lee, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, an owner must ask several questions before assuring themselves protection under the RUS. These question are followed by responses based on research conducted for this study.  These questions should be discussed with an attorney.

·                    Is my land the type that is protected by the state?

“Land” is defined as “any land within the territorial limits of the state of Utah and includes, roads, water, water courses, private ways and building, structures and machinery or equipment when attached to the realty.” (Section 57-14-2)

·                    Does my state require that the land be suitable for recreational purposes?

There is no language in Utah’s RUS stating that the land be suitable for recreational purposes. (refer to above definition of “Land”.)

·                    Should I be concerned about the proposed recreational uses?

“Recreational Purpose” is defined as “includes but is not limited to, any of the following or any combination thereof: hunting, fishing, swimming, skiing, snow shoeing, camping, picnicking, hiking, studying nature, water-skiing, engaging in water sports, using boats, mountain biking, using off-highway vehicles or recreational vehicles, and viewing or enjoying historical, archeological, scenic, or scientific sites.”

·                    Must I demonstrate that I have given permission for recreational use on my land?

Some states presume that unless otherwise indicated permission has been granted.  Utah’s Supreme Court, in contrast, has required some showing that the land was open for recreational purposes. (Golding v. Ashley Cent. Irr. Co., 1990)

·                    Will I be protected if I charge users?

Because the RUS’s intent is to make land available to the public, charging a fee for use of the land would negate its protection.  If a landowner attempts to charge individuals entering their land, they will loose the protection of the RUS, regardless of whether or not they have granted an easement.  (Section 57-14-4 and 57-14-6)

·                    Are there conditions on my land that could be considered attractive nuisances?

Section 57-14-13 states  that “an owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by any person using the premises for any recreational purpose,…”  Exceptions to this are Subsections (1) and (2) of Section 57-14-6 (see Appendix C.) and whether or not there was an “attractive nuisance”.  

A long time established part of property law states that owners must protect young children from attractive nuisances.  An attractive nuisance can be summarized as a situation that is inherently dangerous and enticing to unknowing individuals, and in these cases, the plaintiff must contend that the child was unaware of the dangers in whatever he or she did  (Lee, 1995).

Open, concrete lined canals are most likely to be an attractive nuisance due to the steep ledges and moving water.  As noted in the interview by Terel Grimley, President of Utah Water Users Association (question #8), Utah courts have held that irrigation companies are released from liability in regards to “attractive nuisance” due to the sizable burden of requiring piping of the canal.  To mitigate for this, developers building next to canals are now required by law to install fencing along the corridor.  So whether or not the courts will continue shielding from liability when a recreational trail is thrown in the picture is a question that will have to be answered by the public entities lawyers and begins to go beyond the scope and purpose of this report. 



The affected parties of a proposed canal trail include regional, county and local communities;  the perspective canal company/water authority; adjacent landowners and future trail users.  As Charles Little states in his book Greenways for America “In the main, greenway-making is by its nature an extremely visible conservation activity.  The very linearity of a greenway means that its existence, or lack of it, will affect many lives”  (Little, 1995).  Canal trails fall into this category because, just like any other form of recreational trail, they are non-exclusive.  A single canal trail can impact all socioeconomic levels, embody all types of land uses and fulfill the needs of multiple recreational uses,  while hopefully enhancing the impacted canal companies/ water authorities needs. 


Regional, County and Local Communities

Due to the broad-reaching social, environmental and economic effects of recreational trails, individual communities with their groups, associations, councils, societies and organizations are intensely engaged in all stages of development.  Because of this, grassroot groups play a vital role in the trails master planning stages.  As illustrated in this chapter, canal trails impact the recreational, economic, transportation, environmental, wildlife, open space, cultural and quality of life aspects of the surrounding communities and region they bisect.  While studies have shown that most of these impacts are positive, there will nevertheless be impacts positive and negative that will be of concern to the communities they bisect. 


Canal Company/Water Authority

As the impacts on, and concerns of this group have been less examined in literature, it is this group which this study focuses on.  A thorough investigation of the perceived effects of a proposed canal trail on this group follows in the subsequent chapter entitled “Canal Company Interviews”, Ch. V.  


Adjacent Landowners

This is a group that has been extensively examined in numerous studies and reports.  Due to the physical presence of a proposed trail in their backyard, the effects on adjacent landowners go beyond the social, environmental and economic impacts experienced by the larger matrix of the community, to include more immediate and personal concerns involving crime, property values and liability issues.   There is more intense interest among this group regarding trail design and management issues.  To assuage these concerns, this affected group has to be made aware of the project during its inception and should be involved throughout the design and implementation process.  A review of related literature can be found in Chapter IV: “Adjacent Landowner Concerns”.


Trail Users

            This group consists of a whole gamut of recreational interests including bicyclists, runners, walkers, rollerbladers, horseback riding, photographers, naturalists, etc.  These recreational groups often are represented by grassroot associations, nature and recreational societies, non-profit organizations, etc.  They are also represented  by larger national organizations such as the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and even governmental agencies such as the National Park Service.  The impacts of a canal trail on this group have more to do with trail design issues and availability.  Since this group is part of the community and more than likely consist of adjacent landowners, their concerns are representative of concerns of most groups effected by canal trails.  An analysis of trail user demographics studies can be found in chapter IV: “Adjacent Landowner Concerns”. 


Related topics:

More resources:

Updated September 1, 2006

Page footer

Contact us | Mission statement | Board of directors | Member organizations | Site map | Copyright | NRT | NTTP