Trails on Private Lands: an Introduction
Each year, the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) sees an average of over six million visitors per year; more than Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined. While the WMNF is well recognized as one of the primary recreation areas in New England, many visitors probably do not realize that some of the most heavily used hiking trails in the WMNF actually originate on private land near the Forest boundary. Even the most dedicated hikers will probably be surprised that almost 25 % of the trails in the WMNF pass through private lands. For some trails, this includes only a small section near the trailhead, but for others nearly the entire trail passes through the land of multiple private owners before entering the WMNF.
Cooperative relationships among trail maintenance organizations, the Forest Service, and individual landowners to allow public access to these trails is a remarkable example of an unsung success. These partnerships seem to be discussed only in the rare cases that problems arise, while successful cooperation goes relatively unnoticed. The strong commitment to public access by the majority of the landowners is rarely mentioned outside the circle of trail maintenance organizations. Without this commitment, many historic trails, in some cases trails that predate the creation of the White Mountain National Forest, would not be open to use by hikers. It seems logical then, that in exchange for this commitment to public access, there must also be a understanding by the hiking community to respect the rights of the property owners.
The WODC, due in part to the large number of trails in the Wonalancet area that pass through private land, has long been active in hiker education. Raising awareness about issues including: parking, noise, dogs, litter, and remaining on the designated trail, is necessary to assuage some of the concerns of private landowners. In general, most hikers are very respectful, but unfortunately, the actions of a few careless people can have serious implications for the entire hiking community. In light of this, the blue signs placed near Ferncroft alerting hikers to private land in the area are an excellent example of one attempt to raise awareness in the hiking community.
These concerns affect the entire White Mountain region, however; not just Albany and Tamworth. From the eastern border of the WMNF in Lovell and Chatham, Maine through to the western section of the Forest in Haverhill and Easton, heavily used trails in all parts of the WMNF rely on the goodwill and cooperation of the private landowners to ensure continued public access. Strategically placed signs are not spread throughout the WMNF to remind hikers of private land, and it is the responsibility of hikers to be aware and act accordingly. The Forest boundary does not appear on all maps, so take a moment to find out before you go, and always act responsibly. Remember that even some activities permitted in the WMNF may not be permissible in private land.
Some of the most significant issues include: not camping or building fires near trailheads, keeping dogs on a leash (or leaving pets at home), keeping as far as possible from private buildings, reducing noise and litter, and remaining on the designated trail. This is not to say that in federal land people should not be aware of these issues (there are additional regulations within the WMNF), but merely that in private lands, hiker impact potentially has more lasting importance.
Attached is a summary of the research conducted to date to alert hikers to the trails involved. This project began in November to update an outdated and incomplete list of trails in the WMNF that pass through private lands. AS a side note, one of the most interesting aspects of this project for me personally, has been the realization that many of my favorite trails are included in the inventory. As the research has been discussed with others, surprise at the number of trails involved seems almost a universal reaction.
Of the nearly 400 hiking trails in the WMNF, 89 originate in or pass through private land. (This does not include some of the small local paths that do not enter the National Forest such as the Gordon Path.) As several trails share common trailheads, 61 trailheads are located on private land. In total, trails which cross private land account for over 308 total trail miles (84 miles are actually in private ownership), or approximately 23 percent of the total trail mileage in the WMNF.
In relating these statistics, the intent is not to cause alarm. Certainly a sizable number of trails are involved, but in general, the majority of landowners recognize the value of the trails on their property and are supportive of use by hikers. It is important to note that this situation also presents an challenge for the hiking community to improve the good relations currently enjoyed with most of the landowners. On an individual level, by respecting the rights of private owners and acting responsibly, the prospects for continued public access are certainly improved. On an organizational level, improving the existing relationships with private owners and working to preserve long-term public access is more important than ever.
For landowners reading this article, thank you for allowing use of your land. If you have questions or concerns, please contact the WODC or myself. We would happy to provide any information you need regarding trail work to be conducted on your trail, or answer any other questions. It is our intent to work with landowners to address any concerns and improve existing cooperative relationships.
The author of this article, Brendan O'Reilly, is no longer with the AMC.
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