The Forest Service has released a draft of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail Comprehensive Management plan for public comment. The plan is currently undergoing an Environmental Assessment, which is an important step in the plan’s development and required before the plan can be approved by the Secretary of Agriculture. Public comments collected in the next 30 days will be used to shape the final draft of the plan. Once approved, the plan can be implemented through a partnership between the Forest Service and Pacific Northwest Trail Association, with the participation of numerous other land managers and partners throughout the PNT corridor.
Your comments now will be used to help direct the management of the trail for decades to come.
What is the Comprehensive Management Plan and why is it so important for the PNT?
I once attended a presentation that a group of thru-hikers gave about their hike together. They spoke of hundreds of miles of road walking, almost no signage, large sections of private land, and communities along the trail corridor that weren’t connected to the resource and didn’t know anything about the months-long journey the group was undertaking.
These were Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, and they were describing what it was like to thru-hike the PCT in the early 1970’s. The PCT had recently been designated as one of the country’s first national scenic trails in 1968, and much work remained to be done to create the consistently managed and continuously protected experience that the PCT offers today.
The Pacific Northwest Trail is in a similar stage of its development as the Pacific Crest Trail was in the 1970’s: recently designated and awaiting a Comprehensive Management Plan that will authorize a blueprint for the trail’s completion and ensure consistent management and protection of the trail from one end to the other.
While many parts of the current PNT were specifically selected for the world class views and experiences that they provide, today’s users of the trail may find other portions… underwhelming.
In most cases, the preliminary alignment for the PNT was selected to make use of pre-existing infrastructure that could provide for connectivity of the trail from end to end. This includes some trail segments, gravel or paved roads, and swaths of private land that do not meet the desired conditions for a national scenic trail. Over time, the alignment of the trail will need to be refined, sections that are currently aligned along roads will need to be moved to non-motorized tread, and permanent public access will need to be protected for the entire length of the trail.
Approval of the PNT comprehensive plan will enable the next stage of our work, where we can begin to close the gaps, protect the surrounding landscapes and ecosystems that make the PNT experience so special, and ensure permanent public access to the entire trail across all lands that it crosses.
What exactly will the PNT comprehensive plan do?
All national scenic and historic trails are designated under the authority of the National Trails System Act (NTSA). The NTSA requires that:
“the responsible Secretary shall, after full consultation with affected Federal land managing agencies, the Governors of the affected States, [and] the relevant advisory council established pursuant to section 5(d) . . submit to the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources of the Senate, a comprehensive plan for the acquisition, management, development, and use of the trail”
Requirements for the plan, outlined in the NTSA, include specific objectives and practices to be observed in the management of the trail, including the identification of all significant natural, historical, and cultural resources to be preserved; an identified carrying capacity of the trail and a plan for its implementation; and an acquisition or protection plan for all lands to be acquired by fee title or lesser interest, along with detailed explanation of anticipated necessary cooperative agreements for any lands not to be acquired.
As part of the land acquisition and protection guidance, the plan should also lay the groundwork for an optimal location review process. This process will be used to analyze the entire length of the PNT corridor, section by section, to identify the route that would best “provide for maximum outdoor recreation potential and for the conservation and enjoyment of the nationally significant scenic, historic, natural, or cultural qualities of the areas through which such trails may pass.”
The plan should also identify the nature and purposes for which the trail was designated and define the desired conditions for the trail and the primary and key user groups for which the trail is managed.
What are some examples of ways that the development of the PNT has been delayed in the absence of a comprehensive plan?
Getting the trail off of roads
For many years, PNTA has worked to identify the best locations to move the PNT in order to get it off or roads and into backcountry landscapes that would best offer users the experiences that the trail was designated to provide. In the absence of a comprehensive management plan for the trail, land managers have been unable to move beyond our planning efforts to conduct the environmental analysis work needed to approve these new trail construction projects.
The National Trails System Act dictates that non-substantial relocations of the PNT require the approval of the Secretary of Agriculture. Through the Secretary’s approval of the PNT comprehensive plan, the guidelines through which such relocation proposals will be examined and approved are established. This enables local management units the authority and confidence to proceed with this important work with us.
Protecting the landscapes and ecosystems that make the PNT corridor so special
By law, national scenic trails are designated “for the conservation . . . of the nationally significant scenic, historic, natural, or cultural qualities of the areas through which such trails may pass.” By formally identifying the nationally significant resources within the PNT corridor and establishing the desired conditions for the trail experience, the comprehensive management plan will provide local management units guidance for the type of activities that should and should not occur within the trail corridor.
Guidance from the comprehensive plan such as “the PNT corridor should be managed for a scenic integrity objective of high to very high” would help to ensure that all actions proposed within the PNT corridor would be managed with the goal of restoring or preserving a natural character where human-caused changes or impacts are not visually evident.
Guidance such as “No surface occupancy for oil and gas leasing activities and no common variety mineral extraction shall occur within the national scenic trail corridor” would provide specific land protections within the trail corridor.
While these examples are important for preserving and enhancing the user experience, consistent management of the PNT corridor in this manner is also important for the ecological integrity of the surrounding landscape, and will provide wildlife with landscape-scale protected corridors for movement between ecosystems from one season to the next, and from currently preferred habitat to areas that may better ensure their survival in the future, in the face of global climate change.
These will be new protections for the landscape that would not otherwise exist in the absence of the Pacific Northwest Trail and its accompanying comprehensive management plan.
Consistently identifying the full length of the trail on the ground and in digital and print resources
Despite significant progress by PNTA to increase signage on the PNT and improve digital and print resources for the trail in recent years, much of the trail remains unmarked, including entire land management units where the installation of signage remains to be approved and the inclusion of the PNT on agency maps and other print resources has been delayed. In many cases, land managers have pointed to the lack of an approved comprehensive management plan as the reason for this delay.
Desired conditions guidance such as “The Pacific Northwest Trail is marked, as frequently as necessary for navigation purposes, according to the guidance provided for national scenic trails in chapter 5 of Sign and Poster Guidelines for the Forest Service EM7100-15” would not only provide clear guidance to local land managers, but it would also help to elevate this effort as a priority for these units.
Another way the trail could be more consistently identified and unified across its length would be through the assignment of a consistent trail-wide, cross-agency trail number. PNTA believes that just as the Appalachian Trail was assigned the number 1,000 for its entire length, and the Pacific Crest Trail with the number 2,000, it would benefit the management of the Pacific Northwest Trail if a single number was assigned to it, and that it was identified as such on appropriate trail signage, maps and other resources.
A completed comprehensive plan should not only provide specific sign standards and guidelines for the trail, but it should also provide local managers with confidence about the permanence of trail location on the land they manage, ensuring that any investment in time and resources that would go into producing and installing signage and other resources would be enjoyed for generations to come.
What kind of comments would it be helpful for me to make during this comment period?
While PNTA representatives have contributed significantly throughout the development of this plan, we have not yet had the opportunity to fully review the language of this draft, and currently can not provide specific recommendations for public comment.
A preview of some plan elements was previously provided by the Forest Service during the initial public scoping for the plan. The following are excerpts from the comments that PNTA submitted during scoping. We provide these in an effort to help direct public comment, in the event that these issues have not yet been addressed in the draft plan. You can read our full scoping comments here.
Nature and Purposes
The trail invites travelers into the backcountry, to seek the grandeur of glaciated peaks, tranquil lakes, boundless horizons of majestic mountains, deep canyons, storm-carved coastlines and the splendor of wild places. Trail experiences include working forests, grasslands, broad river valleys, farms and ranches that reflect how people since time immemorial have shaped these places and have been shaped by them. Communities along the trail share with travelers their history and deep connections to the land.
The Nature and Purposes statement should be aspirational, not an inventory of baseline conditions. The founding vision for the nature of the Pacific Northwest Trail was published in 1974 and was originally entered into the Congressional Record by Congressman Joel Pritchard the following year. Working forests and other descriptors used in this statement of trail experiences were not described in the founding vision. Instead, this was:
“From well above treeline to luxuriant forests, from one inland wilderness area to another, to the most mysterious of all wildernesses —the sea— will someday stretch a dream trail, a passionate walker’s trail.
It will be as much as possible a wilderness trail with relatively difficult access, relatively few signs and shelters, and relatively great attention given in planning to its walker’s potential wilderness experience.
It will be a trail of superb backpacking —not pale, bland, crowded trail slumming— but adventurous frontier walking. Today there is great obligation upon those who would create a new national scenic trail to avoid the mistakes of the past. Overcrowding, poor design and location, deterioration of wilderness values, and rampant vandalism can all be minimized if enough thought, dedication and money are devoted to the Pacific Northwest Trail. I strongly believe that creating a new trail to serve the geometrically growing numbers of backpackers need not be a disservice to the country through which that trail passes.
In fact, in addition to its other values, the creation of this trail would help to protect many fine roadless areas that are now in danger of development. The National Trails Act of 1968 provides some direct protection for every footpath designated as a national scenic trail. Even more helpful would be the incentive the Pacific Northwest Trail would provide for federal administrators to emphasize wilderness values in their management of land on either side of the trail as well.” (Joel Pritchard (WA). “Proceedings and Debates of the 94th Congress, First Session” Congressional Record Vol. 121, No. 40)
At a minimum, “Working forests” should be removed from the description of trail experiences in the Nature and Purposes statement. The vision for the trail that congress understood when it designated the PNT as a national scenic trail was that it would be as much as possible a wilderness trail, and that it would emphasize the wilderness experience. Activities associated with the term “working forests” within the management corridor —such as commercial timber harvest and cattle grazing— are antithetical to this vision. Emphasizing wilderness values in the management of the land on either side of the trail would be nearly impossible in working forests, which substantially interfere with the conservation of the trail’s significant resources and the enjoyment of its primary users.
We recommend replacing the line “Trail experiences include working forests, grasslands, broad river valleys, farms and ranches that reflect how people since time immemorial have shaped these places and have been shaped by them” with “Trail experiences include opportunities to reflect on how people since time immemorial have shaped these places and have been shaped by them.”
Primary Use(s) of the Trail
The comprehensive plan will identify the primary use(s) of the trail.2 The proposed action identifies hiking, with an emphasis on long-distance backpacking, as the primary use of the Pacific Northwest Trail. This primary use will guide trail-wide administration and management of the Pacific Northwest Trail, including efforts to complete the development of the Pacific Northwest Trail as a continuous 1,200-mile non-motorized trail. The plan also identifies packing and riding stock, and bicycling as key uses in certain areas that should be valued and considered in administering and managing the Pacific Northwest Trail.3
The National Trails System Act specifically states that national scenic trails are located and designated for “the conservation and enjoyment of the scenic, historic, natural, and cultural resources in the areas through which these trails pass.” (16 U.S.C. 1242(a)(2))
PNTA supports hiking, with an emphasis on long-distance backpacking, as the primary use of the Pacific Northwest Trail, but we encourage land managers to more fully recognize the PNT —as a tool for conservation within its right-of-way— as a key-use of the trail. Language providing this direction should be included in this comprehensive plan.
Identifying Carrying Capacity
Limiting factors are those that most constrain the trail’s ability to accommodate visitor use. Through the interview process, the agency identified limiting factors and conditions related to visitor use that will be important to monitor and will help prioritize locations where site-specific visitor use management planning may be needed in the future:
1. Backcountry campsite permits in national parks
2. Management in Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones
3. Preserving wilderness character, particularly opportunities for solitude, where the Pacific Northwest Trail is in wilderness areas
4. Overlap of Pacific Northwest Trail with other national scenic trails
5. Segments of the Pacific Northwest Trail on open motorized roads
6. Segments of the Pacific Northwest Trail on or adjacent to private lands
7. Potential future conditions that could present limiting factors such as the availability of campsites in areas where terrain is limiting, conflict between different types of uses, human waste impacts, future wilderness designation, and wildfire impacts on trail use.
2. PNTA recommends expanding line 2 to include other ESA listed species and associated management areas.
3. The trail was designated to be “as much as possible a wilderness trail” and the congressional record suggests a benefit of designation should be “the incentive the Pacific Northwest Trail would provide for federal administrators to emphasize wilderness values in their management of land on either side of the trail.”
We request that this line be expanded to specifically include other areas outside of designated wilderness where managing for wilderness character and opportunities for solitude may be possible. This should include, at a minimum, recommended wilderness and inventoried roadless areas.
Land Acquisition and Protection Strategy
PNTA requests direction to, when practicable (i.e. single large land owner, etc..), pursue acquisition of parcels large enough to conserve all resources that are significant to the PNT, as opposed to the minimum acquisition necessary to protect connectivity. This would greatly benefit the user experience and conservation goals.
General Management Approach and Practices
12. Involve tribes that have ancestral lands and other connections along the Pacific Northwest Trail. The Forest Service and the federal land managing agencies will involve affected tribes through consultation, coordination, and collaboration, as appropriate.
PNTA recommends that engagement with tribal governments be sought whenever possible, and as early in the process as possible.
Scenery: Desired Condition
97. Scenic integrity of the Pacific Northwest Trail overall is retained or enhanced relative to baseline conditions (see Stringham et al. 2016) through land management and/or, as appropriate, realignment of the trail travelway (see the Trail Alignment and Design section) or relocation of the trail and the associated national trail right-of-way.
Retaining scenic integrity baseline is an inadequate goal for the management of the Pacific Northwest Trail corridor. Land within the trail right-of-way should be managed for a scenic integrity objective of “high” to “very high.”
Thank you for your interest in the PNT comprehensive plan. As a PNT supporter, engaging in this public process is one of the most important actions you can currently take to ensure a strong future for the trail. While we advocate for the trail on behalf of all of our supporters, I hope that you will amplify our message by adding comments of your own.
Pacific Northwest Trail Association
Please feel free to contact us with any questions regarding the plan and your effort to comment at email@example.com.