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By Lucy Higgins • Febuary 27, 2023

America’s vast swathes of public land are a staple of country and culture, sparking images of anglers in Grand Teton National Park’s Snake River or the climbers camped out among the red rock spires of Utah’s Canyonlands. In total, the federal government owns approximately 28 percent of the entire country—that’s about 640 million acres that sit in a public lands designation, many acres of which are home to miles of trail networks for hikers, bikers, and runners. But while nearly half of the western U.S. is owned by the federal government in some capacity, privatization reigns supreme on the eastern half of the country. East of the Mississippi, the federal government owns four percent of land, making the opportunity to have trail networks entirely contained within public land a rarity. 

As such, trails cross through private land, and topics like access and maintenance transition from top-down management to a case-by-case scenario based on landowner agreements. The private landowner model can present an opportunity for collaboration and development because of the potential for a fast and flexible decision making process. On the other side of the same coin, a privatized trail system can be tenuous in nature due to its dependence on the whims of a landowner. 

Rei Yamazaki / Unsplash

In New Hampshire, about 82 percent of land is privately owned, and the Upper Valley Trails Alliance estimates nearly 70 percent of public trails are on or intersect private land. “Sometimes cycling in New Hampshire, I’m taking a back road in Newport and there’s like a house on it,” cyclist Pascale Graham said in a recent piece for Valley News. “It turns out I’m going up someone’s driveway.”  Even when land agreements occur between private landowners and trail alliances or other trail-building entities, situations like Graham’s can easily arise, where suddenly users are off course, venturing onto posted land or a different landowner’s property. 

And with one too many instances like this, trail access can disappear as quickly as it takes to dissolve an agreement, leaving disjointed trail systems that are only built on public land, in regions where public land is a scarcity. All to say: It’s a fragile system. 

In Claremont, New Hampshire, where Graham resides, the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission is creating a specific plan to better understand the current status of trail and trail access, entitled Sugar River Region Trails Plan. It’s designed to be an inventory of Sullivan County’s “trails, and (to) identify gaps in location, use and other issues of accessibility,” Frances Mize writes for Valley News. 

Dan Gold / Unsplash

It’s the first step of many to assure trail use for future riders, hikers, runners, and skiers. After trail inventory is completed—the first virtual public forum has already happened—the Commission will switch gears into public outreach and assessment, and eventually construct an action plan to protect trails, and access to them, for years to come. In clearly marking where public and private land meet, it also protects trail users from lawsuits, and from more tangible realities like landowners using their vehicles on Class 4 roads for personal use. 

As the Sugar River Region Trails Plan chips away at updating land surveys and aggregating regional feedback, they represent a group addressing the reality of trail networks intersecting private land. While one link in the trail management system can bring a network to its knees, it goes to show that with foresight and collaboration, the same link can ensure use for years to come.