Trail Protection Strategies

National Park Service
Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program

There are 5 basic kinds of voluntary agreements for providing trail access across private lands. In order of increasing legal effect these are; informal "handshake" agreements, written landowner agreements, lease of land, trails easements and purchase of land. The choice of trail protection strategy depends on the degree of public and private support for the trail, the availability of funding, your organization's capacity for monitoring easements or agreements, the need to balance investments against the durability of the agreement and most importantly, the interests of landowners along the trail.

Many trail groups have found that remaining flexible and willing to use a combination of trail protection tech niques have resulted in the greatest overall progress towards creating a trail corridor.


Informal "handshake" agreements have traditionally been the easiest to obtain from landowners. They usually consist of either a verbal agreement or a letter by the landowner or the trails organization. They are the least permanent form of trail access agreement, so they are the least recommended in terms of long term trail maintenance. However, informal agreements allow a landowner and trails organization to try out a potential trail alignment for a limited time before potentially formalizing the arrangement.


Written landowner agreements-preferably signed by both parties-are useful because they offer a means of clearly defining the understanding between the land owner and the trail group with respect to the trail. However, they generally carry little weight in terms of trail protection, and are in many respects similar to "handshake" agreements. Some trail groups (notably snowmobile groups) use simple, standardized "fill-in-theblank" trail permission forms that are useful models.

Another form of written agreement used by many groups is a revocable license for trail access, which offers clear terms for trail use and maintenance, and allows either party the option of terminating the agreement with advance notice-usually 60-90 days. The downside of a license agreement is its impermanence. Portions of the trail may be lost when parcels change hands or are developed. Smaller trail groups have a difficult time justifying the materials and time to find new routes, to build and maintain new trail, and to keep a guidebook up to date, all tasks that must be done frequently when portions of trail alignment are changed.


Just as a tenant can lease an apartment or a farmer can lease extra land for crops, a recreation group can lease land or a right-of-way for access by its members or the public. A lease is a more formal agreement that conveys a limited interest in land in return for an agreed-upon fee. A lease may be run for a specific period of time, or be terminated under certain terms specified in the written agreement. Trail leases are uncommon, however a lease of 5 years or more may allow a trail club to make investments in the trail before facing the possibility of changing the route.

A lease may be an ideal intermediate step between a revokable license and a stronger form of protection as it allows the owner to try out having the trail on their property without committing to a permanent obligation. In some cases, a landowner may grant a long-term lease for as long as a 99 year period. Such leases are often granted for only 81 in return for such considerations as liability protection and property tax relief on the portion of land leased.


A trail easement is really the same thing as the old, traditional rightof-way: a long, narrow strip of land through which a trail is maintained and the public may pass. The land continues to be owned by the original owner, and the trail easement is donated to or purchased by a nonprofit organization or other entity. The trail easement may be any width that is comfortable for the landowner and useful for trail building, maintenance, and intended type of use.

The easement may provide strictly for a trail right-of-way or may be part of a larger land conservation project. In such cases, the owner may also convey such things as development rights to a portion of his or her property using a conservation easement. Some land trusts have worked with trails groups to assist them in writing and negotiating trail easements, and included trail corridors as part of larger farm and forest protection projects.

Most easements include a written description and a map that are attached to the deed of the real property. The conveyance of rights is permanent and runs with the property in perpetuity. In return for conveying these rights, and subject to standards specified in the IRS code, the landowner may be entitled to tax benefits. From the standpoint of trail longevity and maintaining clear understandings with landowners, trail easements are the best trail protection tool short of outright acquisition.


In some cases, fee simple purchase of the trail corridor may be possible and/or appropriate. Trail ownership allows permanent control for the trail group, but the cost of purchase may be beyond local ability. Areas where there are planned facilities such as parking, camping sites, shelters, or expensive bridges, or where there are critical trail corridor connections, may warrant fee simple purchase to protect the trail organization's investment. In some cases, a trail group may be able to seek a donation of land, or to look for bargain sales, where the owner will sell property for less than the full market value. In both of these cases, the landowner may be eligible for tax deductions for charitable donations.


Depending upon the uses of the lands the trail traverses, it may be appropriate, for example, to consider fee acquisition of a narrow strip of land along the trail treadway, combined with purchase or donation of conservation easements restricting future uses of a broader "buffer" zone on both sides of the trail. This type of arrangement may be especially useful in situations such as active forestry or farm lands, where keeping current uses is an economic benefit. However, it might also apply to protecting views from the trail, or providing a buffer between the trail and residential or commercial areas.

Copied on April 15, 1998 using a scanner and OCR software by Kenyon F. Karl <> from a resource sheet provided by the Vermont Department of Forests & Recreation. Unintentional errors are likely!

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