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The America’s Great Outdoors report, announced in 2011 by the US Interior Department, includes a recommendation on establishing a National Recreational Blueway Trails Initiative. This has evolved into the National Water Trails System, a designation process that builds on the existing National Recreation Trails program.

arrow See more resources on water trails

arrow Learn about National Water Trails System designation

arrow See Interior Department unveils National Water Trails System on Chattahoochee River

arrow Download the Secretarial Order establishing the National Water Trails System (pdf 659 kb)



National Blueways Initiative proposed in America’s Great Outdoors report

American Trails, in its role as lead nonprofit for the Recreation Trails Program, will be participating in discussions on thiis issue with the Federal land management agencies, as well as the many national organizations that support land and water trails. We'll report on how the Blueways Initiative will be developed as we learn more.


The America’s Great Outdoors report by the US Department of the Interior, includes a recommendation on establishing a National Recreational Blueway Trails Initiative. American Rivers, a national conservation and recreation organization, has been working to improve the visibility of water trails through Federal recognition. In a 2010 paper, "Establishing a National Blueways Initiative," American Rivers declares that "the U.S. Department of the Interior should establish a national Blueways Initiative focusing on the development and protection of water trails across the country under existing authority of the National Trails System Act."


The Alabama Scenic Water Trail is one of numerous paddle routes
that have been designated as National Recreation Trails

The goal of creating the Blueways Initiative, according to the American Rivers policy paper:

"Building on the momentum of the already popular trails movement, a national Blueways Initiative will help to connect communities, landscapes, and people to the outdoors through recreation; protect land and water resources rich in history and ecological importance; and build a new constituency to support federal, state and local conservation."

The America’s Great Outdoors report (AGO) promotes this concept as Recommendation 9.1 "Establish the AGO National Recreational Blueway Trails Initiative to increase access to recreation."

The text of the AGO recommendation (page 69) in full:

"In listening sessions people strongly encouraged the federal government to help communities enhance recreational opportunities in local waterways and adjacent green space, including by creating a national blueways initiative. A blueway is a designated community-scale portion of river recognized as a destination for fishing, boating, wildlife watching, and other recreation, which should get special attention for restoration and access.

"Action Item 9.1a: Develop a transparent process to designate rivers and waterways as AGO National Recreation Trails Blueways, through existing authorities in the National Trails System Act, as amended. (USDA and DOI, working with DOD, USACE, EPA, and other agencies). Nominations to the AGO National Recreation Blueway Trails Initiative will be locally driven and will include partnerships with federal, state, and local agencies, tribes, nonprofit organizations, the private sector, private landowners, and other entities.

Action Item 9.1b: Provide technical assistance and leverage investments that help public agencies and nonprofit organizations plan for designating and implementing an AGO National Recreation Blueway Trail, within existing programs and designation. (DOI, EPA, USDA, DOC, DOD, and USACE).

Funding for the program is another matter, and is likely to depend on Federal appropriations through Land and Water Conservation Fund. According to the Deopartment of the Interior, the Administration's proposed 2012 budget "calls for a landmark investment of $5.5 billion for Interior's AGO programs and requests full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) land acquisition and grant conservation programs."

Another question is how the Blueways Initiative would be managed and how designations would be made.

The existing National Recreation Trails Program (NRT) does include designation of water trails. The criteria for designation, however, and nowhere near as specific as those suggested by American Rivers. The National Trails System Act established the National Scenic Trails and National Historic Trails (both congressionally designated) as well as the National Recreation Trails, which are designated by the Secretary of Agriculture or Secretary of the Interior upon application.

In its Blueways Initiative paper, American Rivers notes that "Under current statute, the Secretary has authority to designate and administer National Recreation Trails which can include water trails, but does not provide the emphasis needed to take advantage of the oppoliunities the water trail movement provides. A National Blueway Recreational Trail designation would focus exclusively on water-based trails, emphasizing land and water protection along the river's course. As with National Recreation Trails, one or several communities working together would nominate a river or stretch of river.

Jamie Mierau, Director, River Protection, for American Rivers, suggests that for a blueway to be designated it would need to meet a set of stringent criteria. These criteria could include but not be limited to:

1. Involves a good story of grassroots “ground up” involvement – especially mayors, county council, local businesses, etc.
2. Restoration or protection projects that are underway
3. Connects with federally protected places such as forests, parks, refuges, etc.
4. Promotes job creation/retention
5. Includes cooperation with farmers/ranchers
6. Facilitates getting kids outside and provides access to under-represented communities
7. Projects that could benefit from the spotlight of the Secretary and the assistance of DOI

This does bring up a lot of questions, since the Blueways vision extends beyond the rather sketchy authorizations of the National Trails System Act. Does it mean literally that Blueways will be part of the National Recreation Trails program? Would it be a subcategory of NRTs featured during this administration and hopefully into the longer term? Or, would it be part of a bigger Blueways Initiative that would include competitive funding and technical assistance.

Another question is how to address the water trails which have in past years already been designated as NRTs. Would they have to apply for a new designation to be eligible for funding and technical assistance support? Or are Blueways (as referenced in the AGO) to be thought of as something that is actually different from the existing designation of NRT water trails? If there will be a new designation process, then the appropriate stakeholders will need to develop new procedures and criteria for Blueways designations. And finally, since the AGO refers to Interior Department agencies, will the Agriculture Department (Forest Service) be developing a parallel Blueways designation program?

One solution would be to amend the National Trails System Act to clarify the intentions and create more specific authorities. The original concept of American Rivers includes this statement:

"The Secretary could also work with Members of Congress to amend the National Trails System Act to include a new section on Blueways, a new authorization for operational and state and local grant funding and other legal changes as necessary. This authorization could create a new pilot program that would offer grant opportunities to state and local govemments, non-profit partners, and private landowners in priority regions to develop Blueways that improve recreation and protect land and water resources. This will ensure a lasting and meaningful national Blueways Initiative."

American Trails will be participating in discussions on thiis issue with the Federal land management agencies, as well as the many national organizations that support land and water trails. We'll report on how the Blueways Initiative will be developed as we learn more.


arrow See the National Park Service water trails website

For more information on National Recreation Trails:

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