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Land and Water Trail Development in Pennsylvania

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The vision for Pennsylvania: Develop a statewide land and water trail network to facilitate recreation, transportation, and healthy lifestyles.

Pennsylvania has been a leader in the development of trails for several decades.

Because of this work, many of the easiest trail miles have been built and are currently being enjoyed by Pennsylvania’s residents and visitors.

Several of the state’s larger trail systems are complete or nearly complete; and a statewide network of land and water trails is gradually being realized.

In 2014, DCNR established the goal of having a trail within 15 minutes of every Pennsylvania citizen.

DCNR’s Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, along with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Department of Community and Economic Development, supports the non-motorized and motorized trail community by providing financial and technical resources and the strategic vision necessary to meet this goal.

Pennsylvania’s Trail Network Strategy

The Pennsylvania Land and Water Trail Network Strategic Plan (PDF) provides  the goals and recommendations for development of a statewide network of greenways and trails.

The trail network strategic plan is a companion document to the Pennsylvania Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (PDF), which helps to guide strategy for local governments, state government, and other outdoor recreation providers.

DCNR is currently updating both plans and anticipates releasing the Trail Plan’s draft recommendations and action steps for public comment in spring of 2020.

Updating the Trail Plan involves analysis of existing data and input from external stakeholders and partners through surveys and facilitated discussions.

The updated plan will include an assessment of the 2014 plan’s progress, new recommendations and actions steps, an increased emphasis on the needs of specialized trail user groups and approaches to ensure all Pennsylvanians have easy access to a trail.

Pennsylvania’s Priority Trail Gaps

DCNR works with partners to identify and map trail gaps along Pennsylvania’s Major Greenways and Regionally Significant Trail systems. Ensuring connectivity within and between trail systems is of vital importance.

Identifying and prioritizing the closing of these Priority Trail Gaps is believed to be the most effective method for improving that connectivity.

DCNR provides additional consideration to grant requests for trail projects that address Priority Trail Gaps.

In 2018, a workgroup made up of trail organizations and DCNR staff developed new trail gap criteria that more clearly defines which projects are deemed a Priority Trail Gap.

Trail managers were then asked to supply data for the gaps in their trail systems. That data was evaluated using the new criteria and the results are published on the Pennsylvania's Priority Trail Gaps map.

The most notable result is the reduction in the number of projects that meet the revised definition.

The number of gaps were reduced from 248 to 112. However, all data on previously identified gaps has been retained by DCNR for future use.

DCNR will continue to work with local trail providers to periodically update the trail gap data. The current criteria to be considered a Priority Trail Gap includes:

  • Gap is along a Major Greenway or Regionally Significant Trail
  • Connects two existing segments of trail or connects an existing trail to a state park, state forest or key community.
  • The gap is 5 miles or less
  • The trail itself has been formalized in an official planning document

Top 10 Trail Gaps in Pennsylvania

From the Priority Trail Gaps, DCNR and the Pennsylvania Trails Advisory Committee name the Top 10 Trail Gaps as the state’s most critical gaps requiring a significant amount of time and resources to address.

DCNR maintains a story map of the current Top 10 Trail Gaps. These 10 trail gaps represent projects that:

  • Will connect contiguous open miles of trails
  • Require construction or rehabilitation of major infrastructure
  • Have a large funding need, generally over $1,000,000
  • Require Interagency coordination

The purpose of identifying the Top 10 Trail Gaps is to bring attention to the gap projects that require resources beyond those of a standard trail project.

Typically, these projects require significant funding, coordination and/or technical assistance from multiple state agencies.

Since 2014, two of the Top 10 Trail Gaps have been closed and four more have construction funding secured.

Once a Top 10 Trail Gap is closed, DCNR has established a process for selecting a new gap to take its place on the list.

Potential gaps are identified from the existing Priority Trail Gap data. A list of potential gaps are vetted through the Pennsylvania Trails Advisory Committee, then recommended to the Secretary of DCNR to be approved as a Top 10 Trail Gap.

Pennsylvania’s Major Greenways

Since 2001, DCNR has maintained a map of the state’s major greenways (PDF), which are existing or planned long-distance corridors (at least 50 miles long) that pass through two or more counties and are recognized in official planning documents by counties.

The purpose of identifying and mapping these corridors is to inform and guide greenway and open space planners, as well as focus trail development efforts in these corridors.

They represent the major “arteries” of the developing statewide greenway system, which includes land and water trails.

Pennsylvania’s Water Trails

Pennsylvania’s water trail network includes 26 separate water trails spanning more 2,100 miles of recreation opportunity.

To encourage the creation of the water trail system, and provide support to the diverse managers of designated water trails, the Pennsylvania Water Trail Partnership was formed during 2008. The partnership includes:

  • DCNR
  • Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission
  • National Park Service
  • Pennsylvania Environmental Council

The partnership provides financial and technical assistance to water trail managers, and offers a statewide process for water trail designation.

Water Trails Strategic Plan

Water trails are also highlighted in the Pennsylvania Statewide Outdoor Recreation Plan, which identifies the outdoor recreation priorities for the state for the next five years (2014–2019).

DCNR is working to advance several actions from the plan related to water trails, including:

  • Evaluating strategic gaps in public access along water trails
  • Increasing public access to water trails in coordination with other projects such as transportation and utility projects
  • Developing and implementing a trail ambassador program

During 2016, the water trails program was reevaluated and a strategic plan was created. Early implementation actions from the strategic plan are:

  • A mini-grant program for water trail managers
  • Water trail program guidelines and standards
  • Water trails promotional materials to engage additional partners

Annual Trails Reports

Annual reports document the accomplishments of Pennsylvania’s trail groups and illustrate the dedication of many trail planners, builders, volunteers, funders, and advocates to advancing the goal of having a trail within 15 minutes of every citizen.