The Controversial Plan to Protect America’s Trails

There are 11 designated national scenic trails stretching across nearly 18,000 miles in the U.S. But there are more than 4,000 miles of privately owned “gaps” in the system that leave routes vulnerable to a change in ownership or a landowner’s whims.

Typically, the government or nonprofit trail associations work to fill such gaps by purchasing land from willing sellers. But Jim Kern, founder of a new advocacy group called Hiking Trails for America, says the only way to protect every mile of those trails forever is through the use of eminent domain.

A power granted by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, eminent domain allows federal, state, and local governments to acquire private land for public use in exchange for “just compensation.”

The Appalachian Trail is the only national scenic trail owned entirely by the public and the only one for which the U.S. government has invoked eminent domain. The National Park Service says it acquired 15,266 acres along the trail via compulsory purchase, mostly between 1986 and 1997, out of nearly 150,000 total acres acquired to complete federal ownership of the land.

The other ten trails, like the Pacific Crest Trail, rely partly on agreements with private landowners, which guarantee rights of passage for hikers. But if lands are sold, or if an owner decides against allowing hikers on their property, it could force a trail to reroute or run alongside developed land instead of the wilderness. “It leaves a lot of uncertainty as to what might happen.”

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