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Wetland Trail Design and Construction

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Environmental and Accessibility Compliance

National Environmental Policy Act and Other Federal Laws

Laws, regulations, and management practices affect trail construction activities. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969. The purpose of this act is to ensure that Federal agencies consider the potential adverse effects their activities may have on the environment. The preservation of natural resources is the primary intent of this act, although the act covers cultural resources as well. The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) covers cultural resources. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) protects rare, threatened, and endangered plants and animals.

Trail construction on Federal lands, or lands where Federal funds are involved, must conform to these and other laws. Proposed trail routes should be walked by specialists knowledgeable about rare and endangered species of plants and animals. To avoid disturbing important cultural sites, archaeologists and historians should be invited to participate. At some locations, cave specialists or fossil specialists will also be important. Trail planning needs to be coordinated with the land management agency that has jurisdiction over the trail.

Each U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service jurisdiction must complete a formal environmental analysis before trail construction or major reconstruction. The process may be simple or complex, depending on the nature of the project and its affected environment. Checking with the District NEPA coordinator is a good first step. Other agencies will have similar review processes. Early in the planning stage, determine the regulations that govern development in the area being considered for construction. Where many agencies have jurisdiction, the agency with the most stringent regulations usually governs.

When Federal funds are not involved, professional ethics on the part of trail personnel suggests voluntary compliance with the intent of the NEPA and NHPA regulations.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers governs construction in navigable waterways and wetland areas of the United States. The agency's primary concern in wetland areas is to limit the volume of fill and avoid filling that would interfere with normal runoff entering the wetland. For a wetland trail the procedure generally involves a letter to the local district headquarters, perhaps a site visit by a Corps representative, and the issuance of a Corps 402 or 404 permit. Generally, complying with Corps requirements also results in construction that needs minimal maintenance.

State and Local Agencies

Many States have enacted regulations controlling wetland development, including trails. More States can be expected to do the same. Some counties and municipalities have their own wetland regulations. More and more trail projects cross agency and property boundaries, so Federal project managers need to be aware of other laws and regulations that might apply.

Occasionally, large areas have been established with uniform regulations applying to many towns and counties. The Adirondack Park Agency is a good example. This agency's regulations apply to 6 million acres of New York State's Adirondack Mountains. Included are all or parts of 12 counties and more than 100 towns and villages. Roughly 45 percent of the land is owned by the State; the rest is privately owned.

Accessible Trails

Trails need to be accessible to people with differing physical abilities. All trails do not have to be accessible to all people, but accessibility is to be considered for new trail construction and major reconstruction. It is a legal requirement to do so, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It also makes sense, especially when there may be spectacular scenery or an opportunity to view wildlife. The USDA Forest Service policy is to follow the U.S. Access Board's draft guidelines for trails accessibility evaluation and construction (if the trail meets the evaluation criteria). These guidelines are available at http://www.access-board.gov/outdoor/outdoor-rec-rpt.htm.


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Updated: 04/14/2014
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