Happy birthday PCT: the National Trails System Act is 49 today

Today is the 49th birthday of the National Trails System Act.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed this seminal law on Oct. 2, 1968, dedicating the Pacific Crest and Appalachian national scenic trails. Surely, it was a landmark piece of legislation. But more importantly, it kicked off efforts that that continue to this day. With the simple stroke of a pen, Johnson put trails in America on the map and into our collective conscience.

Like we do in this country, we went big. There are now 11 national scenic trails and 19 national historic trails. There are countless national recreation trails and many other side trails. Trails run though cities and parks. We keep building. We love our trails in this country. They crisscross our public lands, allowing us to wander and find peace, solitude, adventure, friendship and, in many ways, ourselves.

The Painted Lady above Rae Lakes on the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Painted Lady above Rae Lakes on the Pacific Crest Trail, California High Sierra.

Johnson, a rancher at heart, came to the idea of trails primarily because of others. But he ultimately agreed with his advisors, most prominently Interior Secretary Stuart Udall (a President John F. Kennedy appointee), that trails were important for the nation’s health. It took some convincing.

The explorer’s spirit that defined the West, the rugged frontier life, had somehow eroded over time. Development, overpopulation and exploitation of our national resources had upset the balance. Many Americans felt that they were losing their intimate relationship with the land. It was time to restore a richness to life.

In his “Natural Beauty Message”— a speech on Feb. 8, 1965—Johnson called for the creation of a national system of trails in cities and across the country’s great landscapes. “In the backcountry, we need to copy the great Appalachian Trail in all parts of America,” he said.

So began and effort to revive a 1945 idea for a system of trails, one that originally died in the backwater of a Congressional committee. The administration, with Udall driving the train, commissioned the Trails for America report, which set the stage for the National Trails System Act. The nationwide study was released in December 1966.

Alasdair ‘Blackbeard’ Fowler looks across Goat Rocks toward Mount Rainier. Photo by: Alasdair Fowler

Still, it’s a miracle the effort led to a law at all. At the time Johnson signed the bill, the nation was mired in heaviness. It was just months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. The war in Vietnam was raging. The civil rights movement and widespread cultural turmoil weighed on the public and the president.

But amazingly, Johnson was undeterred. In many ways, the National Trails System Act was a nod to adventure and beauty, as well as a recognition that large landscapes, culturally important places and the paths of history should be preserved for future generations. It was an affirmation of the best of ourselves, and ultimately, became a popular and bipartisan effort in Congress.  Congress spent nearly two years working on the national trails legislation, seeking thoughts and advice from both public and private interests.

The crosscut saw makes short work of a dead tree across the trail.

The crosscut saw makes short work of a dead tree across the trail near the Trinity Divide, Oregon. Photo by Mark Larabee.

Of course, the Pacific Crest and the Appalachian trails got their starts much earlier in the century, largely through the advocacy and hard work of many people, both private citizens and government officers. But the act of Congress and the president’s signature brought more money and muscle to the effort.

What’s most amazing about the act is that it provides the framework for today’s cooperative partnerships between government land managers, nonprofit trail organizations such as the PCTA and volunteers. It specifically requires this two-way street between government and the public it serves. We see the power of this partnership today, in the work we do as an association to care for the PCT. It’s a novel idea and guarantees that our national trails are of the people. Truly.

So, happy birthday PCT! Happy birthday to our National Trails System. And congratulations to all of you for carrying the torch for this trail and others into the future. Next year we’ll celebrate 50 years of the National Trails System Act. We’re already planning the party.

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Advocacy Director. He is the former editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Larabee is a journalist, part of a team who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for The Oregonian newspaper. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.