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trail resources and needs, and trail
recommendations for all activity types.
From Virginia State Trails Program (Department of Conservation and Recreation) and Virginia Outdoors (January 2002)
The Virginia Outdoors Plan defines a trail as a linear corridor, on land or water, with protected status and public access for recreation or transportation (excluding scenic byways and highways). This definition is adopted from Trails for All Americans, a report developed by the National Park Service and American Trails, a private, non-profit, broad-based trails coalition.
Trails for All Americans examined trails issues from a national perspective to develop broad policies and the following goals for implementing a nationwide system of trails. These goals are also applicable in Virginia:
In response to the growing awareness and need for accessible trails, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation offers technical assistance to various groups, facilitating the development of partnerships, and providing educational materials to share with public officials and landowners.
Specific trail resources and needs: Nearly all Virginia's long distance hiking and horseback riding trails are in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, and Shenandoah National Park. These two resources provide more than 2,000 miles of back country trails preferred by backpackers, hikers, and horseback riders. Also, hundreds of miles of multipurpose, primitive roads accommodate foot and equestrian travelers.
In the eastern part of the state, Assateague Island National Seashore, the Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the larger national battlefield parks all offer opportunities for trail users. Virginia's state parks have more than 350 miles of trails, many of which combine with extensive trail and gated roads in adjacent state and national forests. New River Trail State Park is a 57-mile rail-trail stretching from Pulaski to Galax in southwest Virginia, which is used by hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians. Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, within its Wildlife Management Area system, maintains numerous access trails for hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and other wildlife-related outdoor recreation. The Virginia Department of Forestry also maintains many trails -- several in Zoar State Forest, the Willis River hiking and canoe trails in Cumberland State Forest and the connectors between the Cumberland and Appomattox-Buckingham State Forests. Most state forests contain hiking trails and an infrastructure of forest roads and trails, totaling approximately 260 miles which are available for controlled forms of outdoor recreation.
Many local and regional parks have established lengthy multi-use trails, some of which take advantage of unique corridors in densely populated areas. The W&OD Railroad Regional Park follows the bed of the abandoned Washington and Old Dominion Railroad. Administered by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, it extends 45 miles from Alexandria to Purcellville in Loudoun County. The Virginia Creeper Trail, of National Recreation Trail status, is a multi-purpose trail constructed on an abandoned railroad right-of-way between the towns of Abingdon and Whitetop. Two Virginia Beach parks eventually will be linked by a trail following portions of a utility easement. In Fairfax County, many trails have been developed along stream valleys in designated environmental quality corridors. Short foot trails, such as interpretive and walking trails five miles or shorter, are found in nearly all major recreational areas and in many local parks throughout the Commonwealth.
A particularly significant trail resource in Virginia is the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Entering the state from the north near Harpers Ferry, this 2,100 mile Maine-to-Georgia foot trail winds its way down the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and then southwest through the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests before leaving the state near Damascus. The majority of the 540 miles of Appalachian Trail in Virginia is on public land and is consequently protected to some degree. Several stretches of the trail which cross private land, however, are experiencing incompatible encroachments and increasing conflicts regarding use. Even where the trail seems secure on public land, activities adjacent to or within this land may adversely affect the scenic and physical character of the trail. Efforts should be made to seek the voluntary cooperation of landowners and stakeholders to resolve these issues. State and local government may consider these issues in planning and zoning decisions that may affect lands in the vicinity of the trail.
The Appalachian Trail is unique because of its history of cooperative management. For more than 50 years the many representatives of the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) have worked voluntarily with federal, state, and local governments, as well as numerous individual landowners, to solve problems associated with the acquisition, development, administration, management, and maintenance of the trail. The Appalachian Trail Conference and its member clubs manage the trail. Recognizing its importance, the Virginia General Assembly in the Code of Virginia, Chapter 10.1-203, as amended, designated the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) as responsible for acquisition, administration, and management of the trail in Virginia.
DCR has agreed to:
From rails to trails:
The recreational potential of rail rights-of-way has long been recognized. Congress enacted the National Trails System Act to establish a nationwide network of trails. But after 15 years the number of established trails was quite small, as most railroads don't own all the land where their tracks lie. Instead, the railroads often have legal rights, or easements, to use the land of adjoining property owners. When the railroad abandons the rail line, these easements often are revoked, and the property reverts to the adjoining landowners. Establishing a trail under these circumstances would require an agreement with the railroad and all adjacent landowners.
Congress addressed this problem in the Trail Act Amendments of 1983. Those amendments prevent a railroad's easement from lapsing if the right-of-way is used as a recreational trail. As a result, trail use proponents now only must have a formal agreement with the railroad. Before the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) grants an abandonment to a railroad, posted notices tell the public and all potentially affected persons of the request, so that comments and appeals can be solicited. Trail users should notify the ICC and the railroad of their interest in the right-of-way as a trail.
Crisscrossing Virginia is an extensive system of more than 3,000 miles of operating railroads. Over the last 25 years, a substantial amount of this railroad mileage has been abandoned. While a few have been acquired for trail use and become very popular recreation resources, the majority of these corridors weren't acquired for recreational use because property ownership reverted to adjacent landowners.
Many miles of railroad rights-of-way in Virginia are either available or may soon become available for acquisition. Several of these pass through more than one locality, which complicates ownership and management. In such cases, it's better to establish a separate entity to manage the trail. A park authority is a good mechanism for crossing jurisdictional lines equitably. Another idea is a public/private partnership or a private, non-profit organization that works with local governments while building support for the trail.
The Virginia Outdoors Plan's Greenways system map identifies many rail lines that have been abandoned, as well as some operating lines that could be important components of a state greenways network. Many of the lines still in service operate only on low tonnage and may soon become the subjects of abandonment applications. Localities should evaluate railroads in their jurisdictions and could plan to obtain and manage abandoned rights-of-way for trails or other public uses.
Bicycling and bikeways:
More and more people are riding bikes recreationally and as a viable mode of transportation. The 1992 Virginia Outdoors Survey ranks bicycling as the seventh-most popular recreational activity, with 31 percent of households participating. Bicycle facility planning in Virginia is still evolving. The Virginia Department of Transportation, with its Bicycle Advisory Committee, published A Virginia Guide for Bicycle Facility Planning in 1994. The guide, primarily about paved-surface riding, combined with Mountain Bikes on Public Lands (The Bicycle Federation of America), provides planners and managers with a solid framework for meeting a wide variety of bicycling needs.
Bicycle projects must be included in comprehensive or transportation plans for funding consideration through most Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) programs.
A bicycle accommodation needs to be in an adopted plan in order for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to participate in its design and construction. VDOT is mandated to develop a state bicycle plan for areas not located in a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Biking and walking are addressed as elements in the statewide intermodal plan prepared by VDOT's Transportation Planning Division.
As with any trail planning, the most important aspect of bicycle planning involves obtaining input from the bicycling public. Many areas in Virginia have organized bicycling clubs that can help gather and provide information. However, not all community bicycling needs will be represented by clubs.
Bicycle plans should be compatible with 1) local comprehensive plans; 2) transportation plans developed at the local, regional (Metropolitan Planning Organization - MPO), or state levels; 3) transit plans; and 4) parks and recreation plans. Where appropriate, plans should follow American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) design guidelines.
Following the planning, design criteria should be established. Then performance criteria should be established, possibly including:
Accessibility, directness, continuity, route attractiveness, low conflict, cost, ease of implementation, and multi-modal coordination. An analysis should be made -- compiling an inventory of significant origins and destinations, projected and current bicycle use, existing bicycle facilities, planned highways improvements, and local comprehensive plans. Next, desired routes should be developed and evaluated and types of facilities designated. This should be followed by bicycle education, safety, law enforcement and encouragement programs. After development and adoption, the final step is implementation.
Existing Interstate Bike Routes
Interstate Bicycle Route 1 stretches from the Virginia/North Carolina state line at Palner Springs near Occoneechee State Park to Boston, Massachusetts. This route crosses the Potomac River in Arlington County and passes through Fredericksburg and Richmond.
Interstate Bicycle Route 76, crossing the United States to Asrotia, Oregon, begins in Yorktown, travels through Williamsburg, Richmond, Charlottesville and over the Blue Ridge Mountains to Waynesboro. From there, the route goes south to southwest and exits Virginia at Breaks Interstate Park on the Virginia/Kentucky state line in Buchanan County.
Although the majority of bicycles sold today are designed for off-road use, the number of trails designated for such use has not kept pace in Virginia. The lack of mountain bike trails often causes these cyclists to ride on trails not designed for bicycles or to ride off of trails, leading to environmental degradation. In addition, lack of education about proper multi-use trail etiquette has caused conflict between users, particularly equestrians, and mountain bikers. These situations can all be mitigated through careful planning and management. The Bicycle Federation of America recommends the following:
Work in partnership with local bicycle shops and/or mountain bike clubs to develop brochures about safety, etiquette, and environmentally sound riding techniques, raise money for signs, conduct desensitization clinics for horses, build new trails, and establish a volunteer mountain bike trail patrol to provide trail information to all trail users.
Trail regulations enforcement:
Trail riding is an increasingly popular sport among Virginia horseback riders. Increased interest in trail riding and decreased availability of private, informal trails lost to construction causes land managers, saddle club members, and other trail user groups to establish close liaisons to develop new trails and to maintain existing trails. In areas of the state where large tracts of public land suitable for horse or multi-use trail development do not exist, equestrians will need to develop trails on private land. Good public relations with landowners can lead to use agreements where a trail can be developed through several area farms in exchange for agreements to keep gates closed, maintain trail tread, and remove litter.
Because there are many kinds of trail rides, a wide variety of options should be made available. The basic and most important requirement is for trail facilities to be close to where horses are stabled. Trails should be from two to twenty-five miles in length, which is fairly easy to meet in the more rural parts of the state, but becomes increasingly difficult as the more urban areas are approached. Urban sprawl has a tendency to replace farm land and open space with housing and commercial areas, thereby forcing the equestrian ever further from the city center. Public development of greenways, such as stream valley corridors, abandoned roads and railroads, utility corridors, etc., will have to become standard procedure if the future trail needs of equestrians and other trail users are to be met.
Managing horse trails and facilities on public lands can create challenges for land managers. Conflict between user groups often arise. For instance, many trails suitable for hikers are not suitable for horses. Parallel trails are sometimes practical in a wider corridor and should be considered. In the past, off-road vehicles (ORVs) and horses were not considered compatible. Reducing ORV noise levels, proper trail planning, and good trail etiquette can mitigate the vast majority of these past concerns. Using ORVs to support organized horse events has proven mutually beneficial, allowing both user groups to learn more about dual use possibilities.
Numerous opportunities exist to develop horse trails in Virginia. The key is a strong local saddle club with a good working relationship with local planners, government officials, and other trail user groups. Willingness to participate in the process of acquiring the rights-of-way, building the trail, and maintaining and policing the trail after completion will do much to meet current and future demands. Rail-to-trail projects should, as does New River Trail State Park, allow horses with bikes and pedestrians. On trails where the corridor is wide enough, a separate horse trail alongside the bike/pedestrian trail usually works well and should be encouraged.
Water and river trails:
The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, various federal agencies, and private commercial enterprises have developed a system of public access points along major rivers and lake shores. Most include a parking area and a boat launching ramp. In areas where motorboats are impractical, less developed ramps are provided for canoe and light boat access. DGIF cooperates to provide 222 public boating access sites, 185 sites for power boating, and 37 sites for non-powered use. Fifty-four of these sites are barrier-free.
Identifying public access points along rivers and lakes allows planning for many different water trails. In many areas of the state, public access areas are close enough to facilitate day trips between these points. Many canoe liveries operating in Virginia rent canoes and provide transportation to and from access points. Despite these efforts, there remains a significant shortage of access points to many good sections of streams. Many of the access points identified in canoeing guides are on private property or at bridge crossings with no authorized access or parking. A program identifying suitable access to the best stretches of rivers should be initiated, and a source for funding acquisition and development of these areas is necessary.
When local, state, or federal legislation or regulations require buffer zones or limit development along waterways, trails and greenways may be implemented with appropriate planning measures and landowner involvement. Dedication may provide tax or other incentives to the landowner while providing access to the water.
In addition to access points, river recreationists need places between landings to get out of their boats and rest, picnic, or camp. Few public day use or camping areas exist. One solution to this problem is for landowners to open some of their riverfront lands to public use. Islands, found in most major rivers but privately owned, are particularly desirable for this use. Westvaco Corporation, in an agreement with the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), allows the public to use 100 acres of islands in the James River in Appomattox County.
Thousands of Virginians head for the country each weekend to see the sights, camp, fish, and enjoy nature. For many of these people, an off-road vehicle is an important part of their recreational experience. Four-wheel drive utility vehicles, off-road motorcycles and dirt bikes, and four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) enhance the excitement of getting away from it all.
Four-wheel drive, high ground clearance utility vehicles have steadily grown in popularity over the last decade. However, many are primarily family transportation, and off-road use is secondary. Recently introduced dual sport motorcycles have similar use patterns to the high ground clearance utility vehicles as they are designed both for highway use and off-highway recreational riding. This dual on- and off-road use allows access to more than traditional trail areas while purely off-road vehicles (ORV) had to be transported separately to the riding area. On the other hand, dirt bikes and ATVs are almost entirely restricted to off-highway uses and are primarily recreational. These vehicles are referred to collectively as off-highway vehicles (OHVs). Planning for varied OHV trail use should reflect the different needs of each vehicle.
ATV sales and ridership continue to grow at a phenomenal rate. These vehicles feature low pressure and high flotation tires, combined with a low profile, which makes them stable. When operated properly, the wide balloon tires impact the environment less than other ORVs.
While the demand for ORV trails is steadily increasing, there are few suitable public trails in Virginia. Consequently, people ride on private property, ORV club leased or owned land, some public forest trails or corporate timber lands, and occasionally on power line rights-of-way, abandoned railroad corridors, old logging roads and beaches. Many of these places are not suitable because of trespassing laws, environmental impacts, or the noise level of the vehicle. A history of improper riding by a few thoughtless people has given motorized trail users a bad name. However, the majority are responsible citizens concerned with the resource and respect the property and privileges of others. The challenge to government, landowners, private industry and the users is to locate, acquire, and develop suitable ORV facilities. They also would be responsible for managing them to buffer incompatible uses. The most urgent need for ORV parks is in the more densely populated parts of the state. These parks would cater mainly to ORVs and should be carefully designed and constructed. Safety, challenge, diversity, and scenery are all key design criteria when planning an ORV facility. Areas should be designated for different skill levels and types of vehicles.
In the more rural parts of the state, especially counties west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, opportunities for trail riding exist in national forests. The U.S. Forest Service has a "closed unless designated open" policy concerning motorized trail use.
The national forests classify two major motorized trails types. The first include the extensive system of primitive roads with travel ways larger than 40-50 inches wide that serve four-wheel drive vehicles. These vehicles are mostly licensed and also can be used on hard-surface roads. The second type of motorized trail is an ORV trail primarily used by unlicensed off-highway cycles that are designed primarily for trail or cross-country use and have a tread 40-50 inches wide.
A new motorcycling population is emerging. Dual sport motorcycles designed for daily commuter riding also are excellent off-road. These motorcycles have made the trail systems far more accessible to riders seeking areas where ORV trails are linked by primitive roads such as in the national forests. The combination of greater mobility and larger rider population represent unique trail area design challenges. This type motorcycle can benefit from trails typically used by the four-wheel drive community.
Another component of the off-road vehicle trail user group is the four-wheel drive vehicle. The traditional group, consisting of jeeps and utility vehicles, has been expanded by the development of the over-sized tire, high suspension pickup trucks, dune buggies of various designs, and a number of other vehicles requiring a fairly wide trail resource. All national forest development roads are open unless designated closed to licensed vehicles. These roads meet much state demand for ORVs. Because few public facilities exist in the eastern part of the state, most use in this area occurs on private land.
Rural communities are beginning to recognize the economic development potential available by establishing ORV trails on adjacent public or private lands. Other states have chosen ORV trail systems as principle components of their tourist industry. Revenue producing trail systems offer excellent opportunities for improving the economic base of rural communities.
The 1992 Virginia Outdoors Survey indicates that many Virginians recreate within 20-30 minutes of their home. Trails can provide close-to-home, accessible recreation with health benefits, non-polluting transportation routes, and more. While associated with parks, they usually have much less financial burden.
The emphasis on most trails has shifted to multi-use design and management. Hikers, walkers, strollers, joggers, bicyclists and/or horses all can be accommodated on the same trail or corridor in many instances. Innovative strategies for sharing corridors with motorized trail users also are being tested throughout the country. The key to successful corridor sharing is proper planning and design, along with educational programs and some enforcement. Many voluntarily patrol multi-use trails for misuse and educate people about proper etiquette.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) guidelines and publications such as Greenways: A Guide to Planning, Design and Development and Trails for the Twenty- First Century, both available through Island Press, have emerged to address designing, planning, and managing multi-use trails and greenways.
Trail users, environmental groups, local businesses, and the community should be included in new trails development or existing trail maintenance. Adjacent landowners must be included early in the planning stage and often can help identify concerns and issues and develop potential solutions for effective implementation. Many trail projects have utilized volunteers significantly in planning and implementation. Examples are: the Willis River Trail in Cumberland State Forest, the Zoar trail in Zoar State Forest, the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, the trails system in Richmond's James River Park, the Big Blue Trail in northwest Virginia, and the Occoquan River Trail in Northern Virginia.
Privately-owned corporate properties also may help meet trail needs. In some cases, trail recreation may suitably interface with management activities on lands owned by forest product companies, utility companies, or mining companies. Cooperative management programs for limited recreational use have been developed with Westvaco Corporation on some of its lands. For example, Westvaco Corporation maintains a 2.8-mile nature trail along Buffalo Creek in Bedford County, which is used for recreational and environmental education purposes. Hundreds of miles of corporate forest roads, which provide access to timber, offer a wide variety of potential trail opportunities.
Many local businesses have developed trails through their properties to connect to existing trails and allow public access. With more businesses realizing the value of trails for employees' physical and mental health, private, corporate trails are more numerous and need to be included in comprehensive trail plans. In addition, many developers realize that the incorporation of a trails system can help increase housing and office space values and/or increase sales. Where possible, private trails should connect into public systems.
Private individuals often voluntarily offer trails development through their property. They may give an easement on a portion of their land or may allow access through an agreement with a governmental agency. In these instances, the landowner's liability is limited. (¤29.1-509 of the Code of Virginia)
Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) funding for certain trails is available. ISTEA also emphasizes a need for long-term planning on the local, metropolitan, and state level. Long-term trails plans should be included in comprehensive plans and Transportation Improvement Plans (TIP). VDOT should include significant trails in appropriate state bicycle, pedestrian, and transportation plans. Regional cooperation should be emphasized to be sure trail systems connect and cross jurisdictional boundaries where appropriate.
There are numerous and readily available opportunities for extending and improving trails on public lands:
Mountain bike recommendations
Water and river trail recommendations
Motorized trail recommendations
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Updated March 16, 2007