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Building Trails, Protecting Resources

Environmental Permitting and Regulations in Massachusetts for trails and greenways projects.

From Connections, the electronic newsletter of MA Dept. of Conservation and Recreation’s Greenways and Trails Program (July 2008)

Trails are one of our most important tools for linking resource conservation with human recreation. As such, trails should be developed and maintained in ways that avoid negative impacts to ecological and cultural resources. The easiest way to do this is to make environmental review and permitting a regular part of trail development activities.

Any disturbance to the natural environment has impacts, and trails are no exception. When we construct or maintain trails, we should make every effort to do no harm. Trails enable people to enjoy the out-of-doors, and trail work is an opportunity to set a good example of resource conservation and protection.

Ideally, trails should be routed to avoid sensitive resources such as streams and wetlands, rare species habitats, and sensitive cultural sites. However, trail development within or alongside of sensitive areas is often necessary and justifiable. Streams need to be crossed, steep slopes traversed, and unique features interpreted. Allowing controlled access to sensitive ecological or cultural areas may also be an integral part of educating the public about the value of protecting these resources. When sensitive areas cannot be avoided we, as trail builders, have legal and ethical obligations to minimize our impacts by going through the proper regulatory procedures. Below are some of the state regulations and permits that you need to consider when you develop a trail.

Streams, Rivers and Wetlands

In Massachusetts, activities occurring within 100-feet of a coastal or inland wetland or within 200-feet of a perennial stream or river are governed by the Wetlands Protection Act. Among the many activities regulated by this act are changing run-off characteristics, diverting surface water, and the destruction of plant life— activities commonly associated with trail building and maintenance. If your trail building activities will occur within 100-feet of a wetland or 200-feet of stream or river you must file a “Request for Determination of Applicability” (RDA) form with you local conservation commission. Your local Conservation Commission can explain the state regulations and local bylaws; they can also provide guidance on completing your RDA.

How do you know if your trail project will occur near a wetland? A good starting point is the wetlands on-line viewer. If your project occurs near a wetland identified on this map, you will need to submit an RDA. Be advised that not all wetlands are indicated on this map, so an RDA may be required even if no wetlands are indicated on the on-line viewer.

Threatened and Endangered Species: Over 440 species of plants and animals are protected under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). MESA protects state-listed rare species and their habitats by prohibiting the “Take” of any species that is listed as Endangered, Threatened, or of Special Concern. A “Take” is any activity that directly kills or injures a MESA-listed species, as well as activities that disrupt rare species behavior and their habitat.

Trail building activities are subject to review by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program if they occur in areas that have been delineated as “Priority Habitat.” You can determine if your project will occur within Priority Habitat with the help of the Priority Habitat on-line viewer. If your trail project is located within priority habitat, you must file a MESA project review checklist.

Archeological and Cultural Resources: Any soil disturbance activities, such as trail building, that are on state property or funded through state or federal funds (including Recreational Trails Grants) require review from the Massachusetts Historic Commission and you must file a Project Notification Form. This form may be found at If the project is not in an area with archeological and/or cultural resources, the MHC will not require anything further. If the project is in such an area, the MHC may request an archaeological survey, and you will need to hire a private archaeologist complete this.

Note that these review processes treat trail construction and alteration similarly. Alterations include significantly changing the trail’s grade, width, or surface, adding bridges, adding a spur to serve a new destination, and changing the trail’s use, such as from horses to hikers. The following checklist will help you determine if your trails project requires regulatory review.

Massachusetts Regulatory Review Checklist

  • Will any work occur within 200 feet of a stream or river or within 100 feet of a wetland? If yes, contact your local conservation commission for help preparing an RDA.
  • Does the project area intersect with any Priority Habitat Area? If yes, file a MESA Project Review Checklist with the NHESP.
  • Will the project disturb any soil and will it occur on state property or be funded with state and/or federal funds? If yes, file a Project Notification Form with the MHC.

Tips and Tools (Resources, links, and publications)

Request for Determination of Applicability form, for use with local conservation commissions, is at

Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection website:

Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program’s (NHESP) online viewer, with explanations, is at

MESA Project Review Checklist is at

NHESP website:

Massachusetts Historical Commission’s (MHC) Project Notification Form is online at

MHC website:

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