DARLINGTON, Pa. — Would you mind having a national scenic trail to run through your property?
That’s a question North Country Trail volunteers ask landowners in their communities when they want to build new sections of trail.
Sometimes it’s a friend or neighbor. Other times, it’s a complete stranger.
And the question, it’s a big ask, said Valerie Bader, director of trail development for the North Country Trail Association. They know that.
“I’d be leery if someone knocked on my door and asked if they could cross through my property,” she said. “I’d have concerns.”
But that’s how they’re building the 4,600-mile North Country Trail, one handshake at a time.
The North Country Trail is one of 11 national scenic trails. When it is completed, the trail will stretch from Vermont to North Dakota. As of 2015, about 2,880 off-road miles were completed.
The Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail were the first two national scenic trails established by the National Trails System Act in 1968.
That act also called for a study to look into similar trail system projects, one of which turned into the North Country Trail. Congress passed legislation that established the North Country Trail as a national scenic trail in 1980.
The trail goes through eight northern states in the contiguous U.S., including 1,050 miles in Ohio and 265 miles in Pennsylvania.
The North Country Trail Association oversees 30 local volunteer chapters that build and maintain the trail.
The trail runs through public lands and uses existing trail systems when possible. But to connect those public lands, they have to work with private landowners to get permission to route the trail through their properties.
“We’re in a part of the country where we don’t have a ton of public land,” Bader said. “We rely on private landowners to be successful.”
When they don’t have that permission, the trail hits the road. A hiking trail following a sun-beaten asphalt road is not the most desirable route.
Unlike its better-known national scenic trail siblings, the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, the North Country Trail does not have the power of eminent domain.
Bader said they prefer it that way.
“We want people to want to have the trail on their property,” she said. “Not to have us come in and say ‘we’re taking it over.’”
Closing the gap
Getting the trail off the road is a major project in western Pennsylvania this year. They’re trying to get 100 miles of road walk into the woods and permanently protect another 50 existing miles through easements, Bader said.
It’s all about connecting the dots. Bader said they break the trail down into small sections — between towns or between existing sections of trail — and try to figure out the best way to connect it all.
This is when they rely heavily on the local volunteer chapters, Bader said. Volunteers know the lay of the land and can make personal connections with property owners.
Once a landowner says yes, that’s considered a handshake agreement, Bader said. They will move forward with the process to build the trail on their property, but the property owner can back out at any time.
A big concern many landowners have is about liability. Are they liable if something happens to a hiker crossing their land? Bader said every state has a version of recreational use statutes that protect landowners who open their property to recreational activities, as long as they aren’t charging a fee for people to use their land, she said.
Ultimately, Bader said they want landowners to agree to a trail access easement. This easement would permanently and legally protect the trail, tying the trail use to the deed for the property so it passes from owner to owner.
An easement is a big step for landowners, but Bader said it does provide for more protection for them and for the trail.
The Wampum Chapter of the North Country Trail is working on a major reroute of the trail in Enon Valley, thanks to one of these personal landowner connections.
The chapters cares for 40 miles of the trail in Beaver and Lawrence counties. Their coverage starts at the state line with Ohio and extends into McConnell’s Mill State Park.
Dennis Garrett, president of the chapter, said one of their members proposed a “radical reroute” about three years ago.
Currently when the trail leaves Darlington, it follows Route 168, a busy state road, for about four miles. Then it connects with two other back roads for another couple miles until it hits the woods again.
The reroute would take the trail to the west, in a secluded area populated only by “mosquitoes and beavers” near the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Garrett said. The member who proposed the new route grew up in the area and felt confident he could get the seven landowners needed to sign on.
“He knew all of these people,” Garrett said. “That was a major factor in having this.”
The chapter is now building 2 ½ miles of trail in that area, from Route 168 to Scott Wallace Road. Garrett said they expect it’ll take about a year to complete.
They’re already working on making connections with landowners to get the rest of the trail off the road after Scott Wallace Road.
Garrett owns a section of land the trail is on, around Watts Mill Road. He was excited at the prospect of having his property be part of a national scenic trail.
He has noticed, however, an unexpected benefit to allowing his land to be used for the trail.
His secluded property used to be a place where people would dump garbage or hang out.
Ever since the trail came through and there’s been increased activity from hikers and volunteers, there’s been less dumping.
“One of the landowners has already seen that on Scott Wallace Road as well,” Garrett said.
But it can still take time for someone to get comfortable with the idea of allowing people onto their property for recreation.
Bader said they’re increasing training opportunities for volunteers on how to interact with landowners. They want to give them tools to be successful in creating new trail connections.
“It takes a long time to build that trust and that relationship and have that buy-in with the trail,” she said. “That’s really what the North Country Trail is built on – a strong community of people who support this.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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