The America’s Great Outdoors report by the US Department of the Interior includes a recommendation on establishing a National Recreational Blueway Trails Initiative. American Rivers, a national conservation and recreation organization, has been working to improve the visibility of water trails through Federal recognition.
The existing National Recreation Trails Program (NRT) does include designation of water trails. The National Trails System Act established the National Scenic Trails and National Historic Trails (both congressionally designated) as well as the National Recreation Trails, which are designated by the Secretary of Agriculture or Secretary of the Interior upon application. Under current statute, the Secretary has authority to designate and administer National Recreation Trails which can include water trails, but does not provide the emphasis needed to take advantage of the opportunities the water trail movement provides. A National Blueway Recreational Trail designation would focus exclusively on water-based trails, emphasizing land and water protection along the river's course. As with National Recreation Trails, one or several communities working together would nominate a river or stretch of river.
According to American Rivers: "The Secretary could also work with Members of Congress to amend the National Trails System Act to include a new section on Blueways, a new authorization for operational and state and local grant funding and other legal changes as necessary. This authorization could create a new pilot program that would offer grant opportunities to state and local governments, non-profit partners, and private landowners in priority regions to develop Blueways that improve recreation and protect land and water resources. This will ensure a lasting and meaningful national Blueways Initiative."
The National Water Trails System is one aspect of a National Blueways Initiative that will protect and restore America’s rivers, shorelines, and waterways; conserve natural areas along waterways; and increase access to outdoor recreation on waterways and shorelines.
National Water Trails System
To create a distinctive national network of water trails which are cooperatively supported and sustained by public, private, and/or nonprofit entities.
A National Water Trails System will uniquely connect Americans to the nation’s waterways and strengthen the conservation and restoration of these waterways through the mutual support of Federal, state, local and NGO programs by
a. Establishing a national system of exceptional National Recreation Water Trails.
b. Becoming a catalyst for enhancing public access to and restoring the health of local waterways and surrounding lands.
c. Establishing a community that mentors and promotes the development of water trails and shares best management practices.
Water Trails are recreational routes defined on waterways with a network of public access points, promoting conservation and supported by broad-based community partnerships. Water trails provide conservation and recreational opportunities both from the water and from land.
4. Trails in the National Water Trails System will meet the criteria for National Recreation Trail Designation as follows:
1) The trail must be open to public use and be designed, constructed, and maintained according to best management practices, in keeping with the use anticipated. Trails that demonstrate state-of-the-art design and management are especially encouraged to apply for NRT designation.
2) The trail is in compliance with applicable land use plans and environmental laws.
3) The trail will be open for public use for at least 10 consecutive years after designation.
4) NRT designation must be supported by the landowner(s), public or private, on which access points exist.
5. In addition to the NRT criteria in number 4 above, National Water Trails System trails will meet these best management practices:
- Recreation Opportunities
The water trail route has established public access points that accommodate a diversity of trip lengths and provide access to a variety of opportunities for recreation and education.
The water trail users are provided with opportunities to learn about the value of water resources, cultural heritage and boating skills and outdoor ethics.
The water trail provides opportunities for communities to develop and implement strategies that enhance and restore the health of the local waterways and surrounding lands.
- Community Support
Local communities provide support and advocacy for the maintenance and stewardship of the water trail.
- Public Information
The public is provided with accessible and understandable water trail information, including details for identifying access and trail routes; cultural, historic, and natural features; hazards and water quality. The water trail is promoted to the community and a broad national audience.
- Trail Maintenance
Demonstrate ability to support routine and long-term maintenance investments on the water trail. Facilities are designed, constructed, and maintained incorporating sustainability principles.
Maintain a water trail plan that describes a vision, desired future conditions, and strategies to strengthen best management practices.
6. Network and Promote
The National Water Trails System will be promoted nationwide to help all Americans discover water-based recreational opportunities and encourage their stewardship of the waterways. As part of the National Water Trails System, the networking among the water trail community is encouraged in order to assist and support nascent water trails.
7. Potential Benefits of National Recreation Water Trail Designation
Benefits of designation include:
- Secretarial recognition and national promotion
- Mutual support and knowledge sharing as part of a national network (ie, a formal mentoring program)
- Assistance with stewardship and sustainability projects
- Opportunities to access technical assistance to plan and implement water trail projects (ie, a technical assistance center)
- Greater public visibility as a resource that supports community livability and tourism opportunities
- Positive economic impact from increased tourism
- Opportunities to access targeted funding
- Increased protection for water trail-related resources
- Public health safety benefits from maintaining watershed resources and restoration efforts