National Trails System Act (1968)
Throughout the 1960s, leaders of the ATC and the various member trail clubs often found themselves at the nexus of national and local debates of land use, federal authority, conservation, and recreational access. They worried about growing encroachment on the Trail corridor by private development, about the state of their often informal agreements with landowners, a growing number of whom were not the original parties in those agreements, and about a rising opposition to federal acquisition of land for conservation or recreational purposes. Despite their desire to maintain as much control over the Trail as possible, leaders of the Appalachian Trail community ultimately cast their lot with federalization as the best means for preserving the Trail.
In 1968, Congress took up proposals for a new law that would create the first of two "national scenic trails" -- the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. With the support of the ATC and many in the member trail clubs, the National Trails System Act became law October 2, 1968.
The Act defined four categories of national trails: National Scenic Trails, National Historic Trails, National Recreation Trails, and Connecting/Side Trails. The Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail were the first long distance hiking trails designated at National Scenic Trails under the Act, and in 1978 the Continental Divide Trail (and four others) were added to the roster of National Scenic Trails. Since then, the number of trails with the National Scenic Trail designation has grown to 20.
The specific text in the Act referring to the Appalachian Trail reads:
The Appalachian Trail, a trail of approximately two thousand miles extending generally along the Appalachian Mountains from Mount Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia. Insofar as practicable, the right-of-way for such trail shall comprise the trail depicted on the maps identified as "Nationwide System of Trails, Proposed Appalachian Trail, NST-AT-101-May 1967", which shall be on file and available for public inspection in the office of the Director of the National Park Service. Where practicable, such rights-of-way shall include lands protected for it under agreements in effect as of the date of enactment of this Act, to which Federal agencies and States were parties. The Appalachian Trail shall be administered primarily as a footpath by the Secretary of the Interior, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture.
This final sentence was vitally important, because it gave the Secretary of the Interior supervisory authority over the length of the Appalachian Trail. Prior to the passage of the National Trails System Act, supervisory authority over the Trail was exercised by a network of trail clubs, private landowners, and state and local authorities. By making the Appalachian Trail, in effect, a national park, the Congress took away from this distributed network of actors the ability to make final decisions about the fate of the Trail.
Trail advocates' concerns about what federalization meant were mitigated by two factors. First, federalization would bring to an end the growing encroachment of private development on the Trail corridor and would secure the Trail for future users. Second, the Act required the Secretary of the Interior to create an Appalachian Trail Scenic Advisory Council that would provide the ATC and various trail clubs with input on signficant decisions about the Trail and its future. Over the coming decades, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, through a sometimes difficult series of negotiations with the Appalachian Trail Conference (now Conservancy), arrived at a novel public/private partnership relationship for maintaining and overseeing the Trail.