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Trails are our most important tool for linking conservation and recreation. As such, they must be developed and maintained in ways that avoid negative impacts to our ecological resources.

x See more trail design and construction guidelines


Principles of Ecologically Sustainable Trails

and adapted from the Minnesota DNR Trails and Waterways "Trails Planning, Design and Development Guidelines"

photo of deep ruts in trail

Limiting tread erosion is one important goal of
good trail design (photo by Stuart Macdonald)


All development, including trails, has direct and indirect impacts to the environment. To help minimize these impacts, we propose the following “guiding principles” when developing and maintaining trail systems:

1. Avoid Sensitive Ecological Areas
2. Develop Trails in Areas Already Influenced by Human Activity
3. Provide Buffers to Protect Sensitive Ecological and Hydrologic Systems
4. Develop Appropriately when Trails Do Intersect with Sensitive Areas
5. Use Natural Infiltration and Best Practices for Stormwater Management
6. Limit tread erosion through design and construction
7. Provide Ongoing Stewardship of the Trails
8. Ensure Trails Remain Sustainable
9. Formally Decommission and Restore Unsustainable Trail Corridors

1. Avoid Sensitive Ecological Areas

When developing and maintaining trails, avoid sensitive ecological systems or take sufficient steps to minimize impacts on these systems. Ecologically sensitive systems include:

2. Develop Trails in Areas Already Influenced by Human Activity

Consistent with the first guiding principle, where feasible, it makes most sense to site and maintain trails in areas that have already been influenced by human activity provided that you can meet your other objectives while doing so. These include:

3. Provide Buffers to Protect Sensitive Ecological and Hydrologic Systems

Maintaining buffers between trails and adjacent sensitive natural areas is essential to ensuring their long-term ecological quality, diversity, and habitat value. Irrespective of how well they are aligned and designed, trails have an impact, including habitat fragmentation, soil compaction, increased runoff and erosion, and introduction of non-native plant species. For these reasons, the use of buffers is an essential part of trail planning and design.

Recommended buffer widths, however, will vary in response to a number of conditions, including:

Recommended buffer widths may range from 50-200 feet depending on conditions. For a more detailed discussion see the Minnesota DNR Trails and Waterways "Trails Planning, Design and Development Guidelines."

Consult with MNHESP to determine appropriate buffer to rare, threatened and endangered species. Consult with Historic Resources to determine appropriate buffer to historic/cultural resource. Activities within wetland resource buffer areas are regulated by Massachusetts Wetland regulations and local conservation commissions. Projects within 100 feet of a wetland or within 200 feet of a perennial stream will require the submission of a Request for Determination of Applicability form to the local conservation commission.

4. Develop Appropriately when Trails Do Intersect with Sensitive Areas

The above discussion notwithstanding, trail development and maintenance across, along, and within sensitive areas is often desirable and justifiable. Streams need to be crossed, slopes traversed, and features interpreted.

Allowing controlled access to sensitive ecological areas may be an integral part of educating the public about the value of protecting them. Most often, this takes the form of routing a corridor trail on the periphery of a sensitive area (with adequate buffers) and allowing more direct access to specific settings only in very select locations, and with appropriate trail forms (such as boardwalks and bridges) for closer observation. This approach provides reasonable access while limiting the potential for environmental impact and can also be developed in conjunction with an environmental education program. In addition, any trail development should also be consistent with Resource Management Plans.

5. Use Natural Infiltration and Best Practices for Stormwater Management

Whether paved or natural trails, one of the most critical components of trail design and management is to keep the trail away from the water and the water off the trail. On highly developed trails, the use of natural, dispersed infiltration systems such as vegetated swales and “rain gardens” offers advantages over engineered stormwater control structures such as storm drains and catch basins.

6. Limit Tread Erosion through Design and Construction

To minimize trail erosion and impacts to water resources use sustainable trail design and construction techniques such as: reducing the “tread watershed”, “outslope” the trail (slope it away from the bank) to facilitate natural drainage across the trail, and provide appropriately spaced waterbars and drainage dips. See the Elements of Design section for more details.

7. Provide Ongoing Stewardship of the Trails

Trail stewardship begins with an appropriate, sustainable design, and continues with ongoing maintenance and monitoring, and if necessary restoration or closure.

Historically, DCR has put too few resources into trail stewardship, and this has to change. Trails are one of our most important recreational assets. Trail stewardship generally involves providing a safe and satisfying trail experience, minimizing trail conflicts, maintaining a stable, dry and firm trail tread, maintaining clearance zones, signing and marking trails, and insuring that there are no impacts to adjacent natural systems.

Stewardship of DCR trail resources will need to encompass a three-pronged approach:

8. Ensure Trails Remain Sustainable

A sustainable trail is one that can be indefinitely maintained for its intended purposes, assuming routine management and stewardship is provided consistent with the type of trail. If a trail is well designed and appropriately used, site impacts will stay within acceptable limits.

Over time, all trail treads will change shape with use and forces of nature. Anticipating and reacting to this change before significant damage occurs, is key to maintaining a sustainable trail system.

A trail becomes unsustainable when its physical condition passes a threshold where site impacts are no longer acceptable. Under these circumstances, action is required to avoid continued degradation of the trail and adjoining ecological systems.

In practice, all natural trail types tend to exhibit similar physical signs of being either sustainable or unsustainable, as reflected by rutting, erosion, by-passing, and impacts to adjoining ecological systems and hydrology.

In general, trails are considered sustainable if the following conditions are found:

When a trail becomes unsustainable, there are three options. Re-design and restore the trail, restrict use/re-classify the trail, or decommission the trail.

9. Formally Decommission Unsustainable Trail Corridors

Closing or decommissioning is often necessary to ensure an effective and sustainable trail system and reduce maintenance costs and user conflicts. Decommissioning a trail involves more than just a sign or barrier. When a trail is closed or a trail segment is rerouted, at a minimum the visible ends of the old trail should be re-graded back to the original slopes, the eroded soil there should be replaced, and the trail end should be replanted with native plants. The use of a physical barrier and reducing the visibility of the old trail tread are both necessary to effectively close a trail. Experience has shown that relying solely on fences and gates to block entrances of decommissioned trails is not very effective.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ "Trail Planning, Design, and Development Guidelines" provides guidance on different methods of closing trails including using dense planting at entrances, creating closure berms to block access, using slash to reinforce closures, ways to re-naturalize corridors after closure, and public information and education. In many cases, these closures can be done in conjunction with forest management and integrated into a forest management plan.

This excerpt is from MA Department of Conservation and Recreation "Trails Guidelines and Best Practices Manual" (2014)

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