NHARPC CORNER: Approaches to Planning Recreational Trail Networks

Nick Altonaga, Planner, North Country Council, and Rachael Mack, GIS Planner, Strafford Regional Planning Commission

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

From the beaches of the Seacoast north to the Lakes Region, the White Mountains, and beyond, New Hampshire offers residents and visitors alike myriad opportunities for outdoor recreation and for connecting with nature. Trails—used by hikers, bicyclists, snowmobilers, and other nature lovers—are a direct route to the outdoor experience. Regional planning agencies such as the North Country Council and the Strafford Regional Planning Commission are using planning best practices to identify, map, grow, and publicize trail networks in their areas to benefit their communities, residents, and tourists.

Trail Planning in the North Country

The scenic natural beauty of Northern New Hampshire has drawn visitors since the late 19th century. North Country communities, once tightly tied together through the paper industry, are now learning to strengthen partnerships with trail groups and the many trail networks to stabilize and grow their local economies.

The North Country Council’s Coos County trails project began in late 2016. Its origins lie in the North Country Council Regional Plan, which highlighted the opportunities that regional trail networks provide to increase the resiliency of the economy and create healthy outdoor activities for residents and visitors.

A comprehensive trails project is a long-term undertaking that involves research, outreach to stakeholders, data collection, and technical writing.  To date the project has focused on developing a scope of work and a planning framework for a future comprehensive Coos County Trails Plan. The North Country Council staff has used extant research, institutional reports and plans, field work, and working group sessions to paint a complete picture of the Coos trails’ many impacts on people and place. The project has offered a means to understand how local communities have been affected by trail use and to identify how best to create a resilient, sustainable trail network.

Among the elements vital to the trails planning process are the following:

  • Ensuring the public is informed and engaged.
  • Fielding effective questions.
  • Triangulating data between research, collected data, and organizational expertise.
  • Connecting with local communities and stakeholders to create positive buy-in.

North Country Council has undertaken an on-road all-terrain vehicle safety study, drafted and administered a survey to 56 stakeholders, hosted a public meeting to present preliminary results, convened a series of working group sessions, and drafted a report of findings and a draft scope of work. Each stage of the process built on the proceeding stages to better develop the final products.

Stakeholder involvement has been a major focus throughout the process. Engaging with stakeholders yielded first-hand experience and robust data. Discussions with the public and with stakeholders provided insights and critiques that improved the planning process.

Obtaining buy-in from the communities and the active user groups was also crucial. Involving the working group members in discussions and critiques of the results of the research and data gathering was vital to drafting the scope of work. The working group included OHVers, snowmobilers, hikers, mountain bikers, mushers, equestrians, and conservationists. Many were well-known and outspoken members of their groups with many years of experience. Members of the various user groups had many divisive opinions and different views on the level of impacts on communities, on the compatibility of uses, and on how local resources should be managed. Their involvement meant they could have direct input into the goals and principles of a plan that would directly affect their communities in the future.

Despite sometimes tense discussions, stakeholders from the different user groups had many shared experiences and opinions towards trails. For example, they generally agreed that trail networks can help do the following:

  • Create a connection to nature and scenic beauty.
  • Boost local quality of life.
  • Provide economic benefits.
  • Improve connectivity to communities.

Planning a framework and scope of work for a long-term trails plan is a multifaceted, collective effort to improve trails for all to use. As this project and ones like it move forward, it is important for those working on the plan to understand that, while tensions and opinions can run high between outdoor users, they are all seeking to improve the trails to have a positive impact on their communities.

Trail Planning in the Strafford Region

About the time the North Country Council’s Coos County trails project was getting underway, the Strafford Regional Planning Commission (SRPC) began collecting data on recreational trails in its region. The goal was to develop a consistent, centralized inventory of new and improved trails in order to improve the transportation network and help increase public awareness and use of the trails.

The SRPC region is characterized by a rich natural landscape with several major rivers, conserved forests and wetlands, and the Great Bay tidal estuary in Strafford and Rockingham counties. This diverse environment is populated by a variety of trail types for many uses—all a stone’s throw from several densely populated urban communities. SRPC wanted to ensure that users as disparate as snowmobilers and hikers would benefit from a centralized source of information.

SRPC staffers formed an internal working group to develop goals and objectives for the project and to solicit input from stakeholders in the region—including conservation commissions, local recreation departments, and planning departments—and from state agencies. They wanted to be sure the data collected would not only promote the creation of effective maps for trail users and communities but also identify opportunities to connect the region’s trails.

After numerous work sessions and a review by stakeholders, a list of 21 attributes for which data would be collected was agreed to by the working group. To be on the final list, an attribute had to be practical for hikers or other data users, such as planners and land owners, and reasonably easy to collect data for. The final list included such categories as name, permitted uses, restrictions, property, type, and trail surface material. The location and description of amenities—restrooms, parking, benches, etc.—were added as supplementary information to help trail users plan their trips. Field tests at the Hanson Pines trails in Rochester confirmed that data on all 21 attributes could be readily collected by a single staffer and helped refine the physical data-collection process.

The working group next developed a prioritized list of unmapped trails for which data would be collected. SRPC already had a plethora of trail data from numerous sources and, as much as possible, incorporated this data into the trail-mapping database. SRPC staffers fully mapped nine trail systems, including amenities, during the first data collection season. This information, along with data for 16 additional trail systems gathered from other sources, was published on multiple public online platforms. It can be viewed through SRPC’s ArcGIS Online map gallery at http://arcg.is/1bPWyT.

Publication of the data has already spurred interest in mapping additional trails and adding them to the online sites. The collected data has proved to be a valuable resource for SRPC staffers considering local assets for transportation and land use plans and projects. It has also begun to serve as a comprehensive source of information about recreational trails for all users.

Trails offer opportunities for exercise and for exploring local environments. They also provide greater access to sites through alternative transportation modes, and they enhance the quality and character of place. SRPC will continue to promote and support the enhancement of these resources throughout the region.

Nick Altonaga is a Planner with North Country Council.  Nick may be reached be phone at 603.444.6303 (ext. 2021) or by email at naltonaga@nccouccil.org.  Rachael Mack is a GIS Planner with the Strafford Regional Planning Commission.  Rachael may be reached by phone at 603.994.3500 or by email at rmack@strafford.org.