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Trail Tracks opinion forum

Science, Research, and Trails

Discussion on the future of trails: research needs, changing demographics, and challenges to trail development and management.

Presented at the American Trails 19th National Trails Symposium, November 2008

Two sessions of this mini-workshop were held Nov. 15, 2008. Participants included: Jody Carton, Dr. Kenneth Chilman, Christopher Douwes, Kim Frederick, Bill Gibson, Clay Grubb, Karl Knoch, Dr. Jeff Marion, Don Meeker, Kevin Meyer, Ginny Sullivan, Dr. Liz Warren, and others. Steve Elkinton presided and prepared these condensed notes.



How can we conduct credible, replicable surveys?
Can we develop a standardized method, perhaps with plug in modules for higher-level (costs, impacts, etc.) inquiries?
How can we get good trail data away from streets (typical of transportation surveys)?
What research is associated with or required for State Comprehensive Outdoor recreation Plans SCORPs)?
What is a “sustainable trail?” How is it defined?
Could trail-related questions be included in the U.S. Census?
How can we better emphasize these concepts in colleges and universities? (Or is this field too specialized for the college level?)

Pre-trail project needs

Can surveys be developed to help plan future trails?
How can we get pre-project data (market research) as a baseline for later research?
What experiences are people seeking?

Management needs

How can we bridge the gap between theory and reality?
How can we counter the current divergence of research from planning?
What are the best practices for accommodating the disabled? Who are they? Where are they?
How can management learn from user data to accommodate both local and out-of-area users?
How can we arrange effective outreach to visitors/users to promote better visitor use etiquette?

Resource impacts

How can we strengthen the field of “trail ecology” and foster sustainability?
How can we measure visitor impacts in natural areas, especially off trail?
Information systems
What signs and graphics best serve the public – especially special populations (the aged, etc.)?
How can we demonstrate the value of improved information systems for trails? How do changing technologies change information services?
What makes a successful visitor center? Are visitor centers and wayside exhibits obsolete with changing personal informational technologies?
Can we get past the “If you build it, they will come.” mentality?


In the future, who will our new users be? As demographics change, how will visitor expectations change?

Community impacts

How can trails help lower pollution levels in non-attainment areas?

Economic impacts

How can we measure the economic impacts of snowmobiling to justify state funding support?
What is the impact of fuel prices on recreation – especially snowmobiles, OHVs, etc.? How far is the public willing to drive?

Research project evaluation

How can we evaluate projects and justify the investment?
How can trail data be used to persuade politicians to fund trails?
How can we get the most from our research (rather than have it sit on a shelf)?


Dr. Chilman’s RAVI, Rapid Visitor Assessment Inventory
Dr. Donald Greer’s user study research on Omaha’s levee trails ( (includes impacts on adjacent properties and user impacts)
Applied research that is management-oriented (Dr. Marion’s work)
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has developed a 25-27 question survey for specific projects, with a strong emphasis on economic impacts. It is filled out voluntarily by participants and mailed in. Some are funded by states. Some have been repeated to ascertain trends. The advantage of standardization is that results can be compared over time. The results have been pretty consistent from study to study. It has been a great basis for later projects and funding. It has also been very helpful for trail managers to better manage their trails. Health benefits are now the #1 reason people come to these trails. See RTC’s standardized trail user survey workbook on the RTC website.
Sustrans’ research in the U.K. counting users of trail networks
National Park Service’s “Snapshot” surveys ask 15-20 questions that link to the Money Generation Model to assess economic the impacts of national parks areas.
The ITDS (Interagency Trail Data Standards) are a federal attempt to define trail data attributes. It is based largely on Forest Service’s TRACS system and has been adopted by Interior’s Enterprise Geographic Information Management (EGIM) team as a paradigm of complexity.
BLM’s Benefits-Based Management, based on research of Dr. Don Bruns.
Transportation’s movement and numeric surveys, e.g., American Trucking Institute.
Possible information clearinghouses include the Transportation Research Board (TRB), American Trails, and the “Road Ecologists” at the University of Montana. The University of Minnesota’s on-line library is very strong on trails research. (In fact, American Trails tries hard to be a web-accessible clearinghouse of trail-related research.)
One possible parallel: whale watching. Local communities found a whale was much more valuable as the object of seasonal tour boats than as a one-time harvest.


Keep it as simple and flexible as possible (like RAVI).
Explore trails as the economic driver of backcountry access.
Link research closely to training and technology development.
Distinguish between urban paved and natural-surface trails.
Ask the right questions, and be ready to implement the results.


Visitor Use (and from it can be based):
Demographics (including adjusting to growing and declining populations)
Types of users (and their behaviors)
Spending and economic impacts (of both motorized and non-motorized uses)
[The concept of “sustainability” is the bridge between these two categories.]
Resource Impacts (including monitoring, physical resource changes, rare plants, dogs, wildlife, snowmobiles, new technologies, viewshed protection, soils, global climate change, etc.)
One example is the impacts on wildlife and habitats by of motorized vehicles in the dry river washes of the Southwest.
Historic trails are facing major visual impacts of new alternative technologies: wind farms, solar arrays, transmission lines, carbon sequestration areas, etc.
Historic trails might model their visitor and impact research on scenic byways and tourism.
Cost/benefit analysis (economic, including operations costs)
Health and quality of life impacts
Graphics, signs, and other visitor services (e.g., the effectiveness of the new NOAA interpretive buoys in the Chesapeake Bay)
Value of the research itself (degree of implementation)


Some trails (such as the Appalachian Trail) have benefitted from both qualitative and quantitative data studies.
Some in the audience felt the RTC survey wasn’t random enough.
In this economy, people seem to be travelling less often, but staying longer.
It is often very tough to integrate different agencies’ databases. Sometimes this needs an independent coordinator.
If Congress insisted on uniform methods and practices, then the agencies would be forced to craft them.
One survey of local residents reinforced the public desire for trails.
Should data and research for SCORPs be standardized? This might help strengthen trail data standards and make uniform reliable demand/supply models for trails. SCORPs are supposed to be updated every 5 years. (In fact, big trails are often built on vision, not on research.)
For example, the newly proposed system of U.S, Bike Routes (recently approved by AASHTO) is trying to link metro areas over 200,000 in size – but it is not based on any scientifically determined recreational or bicycling needs.

If we embark on developing a field of TRAIL SCIENCE, these might be some of its parts:

  • articles about current research
  • an information clearinghouse (is American Trails already doing this?)
  • network of agency, university, and nonprofit professionals
  • training field staff to think more scientifically
  • marrying the art and the science of trails
  • feeder streams of interested students through colleges and universities
  • utilize the National Trails Training Partnership (NTTP) network
  • identify sources of dedicated funding
  • link to larger environmental and health issues, also transportation

So far, on-line surveys are too easily corrupted, not reliable.
The MUTCD (Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices) is being revised. Many of the signs need better informational content and should be tested for optimal visualization. How should signage occur at the interface between highways and trails?
Instead of a standardized study method (or interlocking methods), would it be better to have an updated information clearinghouse?
Some backcountry trails are being urbanized. How can we better educate land managers there to handle increasing social and conflict issues on these trails?

Submit your opinion, article, or editorial to American Trails at or if you have questions call us at (530) 547-2060.

American Trails offers this website as a public resource to share ideas and opinions on trails and greenways. We have not evaluated the accuracy, feasibility, or legality of any of the material or articles. The opinions and editorials presented here do not necessarily reflect the opinion or support of American Trails. American Trails does not discriminate against individuals or groups on the basis or race, religion, nationality, or political affliiation.

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