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Public trails are being created on private land to boost hiking on the East Coast

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

About 40% of U.S. land is public, much of it out West. That means East Coast hikers have a harder time finding trails, and that has led some to get creative, carving public trails on private land. Here's North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: It's a sticky summer day in the small mountain town of Essex, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL SCRAPING)

RUSSELL: Colin Powers is scraping away at rocks and dirt. He's helping build a new trail on South Mountain. He picks up a stone twice the size of a bowling ball.

COLIN POWERS: I'm going to try and set the stone down in a couple different ways and see which way it wants to be in the ground. Like, where does it just naturally sort of fit?

RUSSELL: Powers is volunteering for the Champlain Area Trails. It's a nonprofit in northern New York. The group has pieced together about 80 miles of hiking paths here. Many of them are on private property. They're working on expanding even more.

POWERS: One of the astonishing things is just how many trailhead signs you see today. Driving around this area, you can't help but run into another one.

RUSSELL: Including a new one just 10 miles up the road in the town of Willsboro.

CHRIS MARON: My name is Chris Maron. I'm the executive director for Champlain Area Trails. And I want to thank all of you for coming here on the grand opening of the Long Pond Trail.

RUSSELL: About 30 people are here for the inaugural hike of this trail. There's a basket of muffins in the back of Maron's truck, and folks are passing around bug spray.

MARON: All right, everybody. We can start walking.

(CROSSTALK)

RUSSELL: The trail to Long Pond skirts past a lush, green bog, crosses over a dirt road before going deeper into the woods.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD TWEETING)

RUSSELL: These kinds of public trail networks on private land are pretty common around the U.S., from the Kingdom Trails in Vermont to the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve in Oregon. There's no way to know exactly how many of them there are. They're all slightly different. To establish a trail network like this, people have to come together and agree it contributes to the greater public good.

BILL HARBISON: We wanted to welcome everybody who wanted to experience the outdoors and nature.

RUSSELL: That's Bill Harbison. He hosts one of the Champlain Area Trails on his private property in Willsboro.

HARBISON: We also thought that people deserve to be able to walk into the woods and not be burdened with signs that say, forbidden, or, private property.

RUSSELL: Of course, there are some folks who would rather see the land developed or used for something else. But Paul Gagnon says trails that cross private property offer a unique perspective. Gagnon is with the North Country Trail Association. That group established a scenic trail stretching from North Dakota to Vermont.

PAUL GAGNON: When you walk through a farm field, for instance, you really can see the hard work that the farmer is putting into planting his crops and harvesting his crops. And when you walk through, you know, some working forest land, you can see all the work that the foresters have done over the years.

RUSSELL: Gagnon says public trails on private property accomplish two big things. First, they often conserve land. The Champlain Area Trails has protected about a thousand acres so far. Second, they expand access to places where hiking trails can be hard to come by.

GAGNON: You know, if we want to provide additional opportunities for people to hike or get outdoors in places like that, having private landowners step up and grant permission for people to hike out there or have a trail out there is really important.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD TWEETING)

RUSSELL: About a mile into the new Champlain Area Trail, hikers get the first glimpse of Long Pond. Shalonie Heald is here with a few of her girlfriends.

SHALONIE HEALD: Gosh, it is beautiful - the shades of green, the water of the sun today shining on the water, the lily pads.

RUSSELL: Now, she says, it's not just a small group of people that can enjoy this scene. It's everyone. For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell in New York's Champlain Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Russell, NCPR
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