Conflicts on Multiple-Use Trails:
Synthesis of the Literature and State of the Practice

The following federal (U.S.) report was scanned by Scott McKown of the Marinfo BBS (415-383-9226; 8-N-1; Marin County, California). Post-scan editing was performed by Todd Ourston. HTML markup was performed by Jim Frost.

Table Of Contents


Conflicts on multiple-use trails have been described "as problems of success -- an trail's popularity" (Ryan 1993, 158). In fact, the vast majority of trail users are satisfied, have few complaints, and return often. However, conflicts among trail users do occur and can have serious consequences if not addressed. The National Recreational Trails Advisory Committee identified trail-user conflicts on multiple-use trails as a major concern that needs resolution. The Advisory Committee recognized that there is a significant amount of literature on this topic, but no one source summarized the available information. The Committee asked the Federal Highway Administration to produce a synthesis of the existing research to help identify ways to avoid and minimize multiple-use trail conflicts. This synthesis is intended to establish a baseline of the current state of knowledge and practice and to serve as a guide for trail managers and researchers.

Multiple-use trails (often called "shared use," "mutual use," or "diversified" trails) are becoming the norm. It is increasingly common for trail users to encounter other users (or evidence of use) on trails. Some encounters are with users participating in the same activity, and some are with fellow trail users engaged in different activities. While most trail encounters seem to be pleasant or neutral, some are unpleasant. The conflicts that can result from unpleasant encounters may spoil individual experiences and threaten to polarize trail users who could be working together rather than at odds with one another. As the number of trail users grows and diversity of trail activities increases, the potential for conflict grows as well. It is the responsibility of managers, researchers, and trail users to understand the processes involved in recreational conflicts and do everything possible to avoid and minimize them on multiple-use trails. This synthesis of literature is one step in that direction. It has two primary goals:

Although this report is about conflicts on trails, its tone is intended to be positive, constructive, and hopeful. The nature of a literature review is historic -- what has been tried, what has been learned, and what the experts have concluded. Because it is largely a synthesis of existing information, this report uses the existing language. This language has tended to revolve around the word "conflict," which could set a negative tone if the report were concerned only with existing information. However, the Advisory Committee is looking beyond the past focus on conflict to a new and more positive focus on trail sharing in which conflicts have been minimized or avoided. With such a focus, contacts with other users can more often become a positive part of the trail experience. This positive approach is consistent with the discussions we had with trail managers and advocates across the country. They regard the resolution of trail conflicts as an opportunity to build a stronger, more mutually supportive community of trail users. By focusing on the many things trail users have in common and the many constructive trail-sharing efforts underway across the country, they feel it will be easier to address the relatively few areas that tend to pull users apart.

The scope of this document is broad because conflicts come in many shapes and forms. In fact, the majority of the literature related to conflict and conflict resolution is from the perspective of international politics and organizational behavior. The focus of this report is conflicts on trails. ts between trail users and animals, trail users and trail managers, even trail proponents and private landowners, to name just a few. This synthesis recognizes these as important topics, but will only address conflicts among trail users. Although it focuses on conflicts among the users of multiple-use trails, it does so within the context of the other interrelated problems trail managers face. It also uses a broad definition of multiple-use trails and attempts to make applications to a wide variety of different types of trails.

Resolving conflicts and promoting trail sharing among users is only one of many challenges faced by managers of multiple-use trails. In attempting to address the issue of trail conflicts, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the challenges trail managers face are interrelated, as are the tools available to address these challenges. It is superficial to attempt to focus only on how to reduce conflict without also addressing other threats to user satisfaction, issues related to visitor safety, and the impacts trail use has on natural resources. The focus of this report is how to improve trail sharing by avoiding and resolving conflicts. To address this topic adequately, it is presented within the context of these interrelated issues. Similarly, the responses available to address all of these challenges are interrelated and are also presented here.

Likewise, "multiple-use trail" is defined broadly for the purposes of this document. A multiple-use trail is typically defined as any trail that is used by more than one user group, or for more than one trail activity. These two terms are the ones most commonly used to refer to users traveling by different modes of transportation and are used interchangeably in this report. Trail-user groups include hikers, equestrians, mountain bicyclists, cross-country skiers, 4-wheel drive users, off-highway motorcyclists, all-terrain vehicle users, and snowmobilers. Many other trail-user groups exist as well, including in-line skaters, dog sledders, llama packers, and wheelchair users to mention a few. Any trail used by more than one of these user groups is certainly a multiple-use trail. However, when considering trail conflict, we have to consider other trails as well. Even single-use trails must accommodate very different styles of a single activity. A pedestrians-only trail, for example, might be used by hikers, backpackers, trail runners, bird watchers, hunters, snowshoers, orienteers, rock hounds, etc., and conflict can and does occur among any and all of these trail users. Conflicts occur even among members of the same user group. Therefore, the information contained here can and should be applied to all trails since in the broadest sense all trails are multiple-use trails and are being shared to some extent.

A wide variety of trail types were also considered in attempting to address the topic of trail conflicts thoroughly. Information was considered that pertains to trails ranging from hard-surfaced urban greenways to unimproved backcountry trails extending miles from the nearest access point. Although there are obvious physical differences among these many types of trails, much of the information and all of the conclusions reached can be applied successfully to any recreational trail. By definition, a literature review considers the information available. In some parts of the report this fact will tend to emphasize the perspective of one user group or a particular type of trail over others. Much of the most recent information regarding information and education efforts on trails, for example, was written with mountain biking in mind. These apparent biases are simply due to the references available. In most cases, the reader will be able to make broader applications of examples or studies originally directed at a single type of trail or trail-user group.

This report is organized into two parts. Part I presents the synthesis of literature and practice related to multiple-use trails. It is organized around the three major challenges faced by trail managers and the two categories of responses at their disposal to address these challenges. In every case the challenges and available responses cut across many trail activities and types of trails. Part I concludes with a presentation of general principles for avoiding and minimizing conflicts on multiple-use trails distilled from the information reviewed. Part II builds on the synthesis by identifying gaps in our current knowledge and suggesting research that could be undertaken to close these gaps.

This report is a review and synthesis of literature, but the literature considered was more than that typically reviewed for academic purposes. Three types of written and computer-based information sources were reviewed: research-based literature (scientific journals, conference proceedings, technical reports, etc.), management documents, and popular literature. In addition (and often more helpful), many hours of discussions with trail experts were undertaken, and examples from the field examined. Conducting the research and preparing this report have been a challenging and rewarding endeavor. It is our hope that the information that follows will help you, the trail manager, researcher, or trail user, to understand the dynamics of conflicts on multiple-use trails and the tools available to address this challenge. When addressed head on and openly, the seemingly negative challenge of trail conflicts can become a positive opportunity to improve trail sharing and enhance outdoor recreation opportunities for all users.

This optimistic sentiment was echoed by several presenters at the Eleventh National Trails Symposium, which had the theme "Trails for All Americans." Their comments are a fitting way to end this introduction and set the tone for the material that follows.

"Communication and cooperation between and among user groups enhances the opportunity for enjoyable trail experiences for all users" (Henley 1992, 171).

"All of us share these common goals: to protect access to public lands, protect the environment and its beauty, to enjoy traveling and being outdoors, to encourage responsible recreation and tourism" (Macdonald 1992, 19).

"Since funding for trails is scarce, we need to find ways of sharing what we do have in a manner which does not infringe upon any one group or groups of users" (Dingman 1992, 168).

"Ignoring, or fighting, entire categories of trail users means losing a great deal of potential support. And it threatens funding and political power by turning the trails community into competitors -- and enables us all to be dismissed as special interestgroups"(Macdonald 1992, 19).

"Splintering the outdoor user groups is playing into the hands of those interests that would exploit or destroy the resource we're all preoccupied with saving. The Davids of the world have a tough job already. If we continue to sling rocks at each other, the Goliaths will walk or ride all over us. Let's build trails, not walls, between each other" (John Viehman as quoted in Henley 1992, 174).

"Sharing trails means sharing responsibility for, as well as the use of, our trail system. We can consider responsibility in three phases: my responsibility, your responsibility and our responsibility" (Filkins 1992, 175).

"Reduction in user conflict comes with the recognition of other legitimate trail activities. In a time of increasing population and decreasing trail budgets we must work towards expansion of recreational trails for all rather than restriction of opportunity for some" (Filkins 1994).

Maintained by Jim Frost.