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Management Basics

Delaware & Lehigh Trail | Photo by Thom Carroll

Next to ownership, maintenance and management are the most critical issues to be addressed when preparing for trail development. The following questions must be answered regardless of whether the trail is going to be owned publicly or privately:

How these questions are answered will affect how the trail is maintained and possibly how it is designed. Long-term trail success depends on sustainable management, maintenance and funding plans. Trail developers should recognize that there are many existing management plans to guide the creation of their own plan.

In 2015, RTC’s Northeast Regional office released the report, Maintenance Practices and Costs of Rail-Trails. The report surveyed 200 trail managers on primary management and design topics, including liability, surfaces, drainage, amenities, signs, bridges and budgets. The report may be a helpful tool when budgeting for trail maintenance.

Another handy text is Trails for the Twenty-First Century, which covers a broad range of general topics pertinent to trail planning and design. There are several chapters dedicated to management, partnerships and funding.

Volunteer vs. Municipal Responsibility

The development of a trail is often championed by a small, very dedicated group. While planning for the trail’s long-term management and maintenance, there are several realities that a volunteer-based organization needs to consider. First and foremost, who will succeed them when these individuals decide to step aside? While the members of the nonprofit friends organization who promoted the development of the trail will enthusiastically support the management and maintenance effort, that enthusiasm may be difficult to maintain over generations.

Raising funds to perform even minor maintenance tasks can also be a challenge for a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization. There needs to be someone in charge who will organize work days, act as a point person for emergencies and chase the funding streams.

Municipal management and maintenance of the trail carries its own set of pluses and minuses. Generally, the municipality will have the manpower and equipment to handle many day-to-day maintenance tasks. The municipality also has access to funding streams that may not be available to a volunteer-based, nonprofit organization. On the other hand, municipal budgets can be strained while priorities change along with administrations. When a municipality is faced with the tough decisions of which services to provide and which to cut, the trail project may be short-changed. In these cases, it may be up to the volunteers and friends organization to pick up the slack.

Memoranda of Understanding

Public-private partnerships for trail management and maintenance are very common. Many such partnerships have been formed with a memorandum of understanding or agreement (MOU or MOA) as their only legal agreement. Examples of partnerships formed for management and maintenance of a trail include the following:

An MOU is usually not limited to maintenance issues but often addresses management as well. It is not uncommon for a friends group to start a trail by convincing a municipality to purchase the corridor, after which the friends group accepts management of the trail and coordinates regular maintenance via municipal equipment and volunteers. This sample agreement demonstrates successful partnerships formed between various local public agencies and private trail groups in Wisconsin.

Leases and Easements

A crucial aspect of trail management is the handling of easements, leases and licenses granted both by and to trail managers. A large number of sample easements are available that pertain to trails that intersect private property. Various types of sample easements are available through the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.

Conversely, trails can be asked for easements that allow others to use, share or cross the trail. Common requests include utility easements and farm crossings. Examples include—


‣ Report – Maintenance Practices and Costs of Rail -Trails

‣ Report – Trail Management Best Practices: Case Studies in Creating Successful Community Trails

‣ Contract – Sample Power Easement

‣ Contract – Sample Sewer Easement

TrailNation Collaborative

TrailNation Collaborative is a nationwide peer learning community from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy that brings together advocates, leaders and professionals from across disciplines to establish and accelerate trail networks across America. The collaborative provides proven tools, methods and resources, combined with RTC’s expertise and network of partners across the country, to accelerate the development of connected trail systems. When trails are connected across regions and states, trail networks have a proven transformative impact—they are essential infrastructure that creates thriving, healthier communities.

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